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Zeisberger

Gretzky on escalating hockey expenses: 'It’s a crisis'

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun

In his role as the official ambassador for the NHL’s centennial season, Wayne Gretzky sat down for a one-on-one with Postmedia to discuss all things hockey. In the third of a four-part series entitled “THE GREAT ONE & THE STATE OF THE GAME,” Gretzky admits that the soaring costs of playing hockey is not a new dilemma for the sport — but nevertheless remains a serious one.


Wayne Gretzky’s children were chuckling at their famous father.

Specifically, at the sticks he used back in his playing days.

Indeed, these things looked like twigs that belonged in a museum alongside the leather helmets and photos of the mask-less goalies.

“Dad, you didn’t really play with those, did you? Because it looks like something used in the ’40s,” they said, trying to hold back the snickering.

It was one week ago, and Gretzky and his offspring were in Alberta to celebrate the first regular-season game of the Edmonton Oilers at the glitzy new state-of-the-art Rogers Place. That’s where they saw the sticks.

Cue the guffaws.

“Yeah, my kids laughed at my sticks when they saw them last week in Edmonton — my ’78-79 Northlands,” the Great One recalled this week.

You can understand why it was hard for his children to wrap their heads around the fact that Dad once used sticks like this during his march to hockey immortality.

First off, they were made of wood, not like the composite materials that make up today’s brands.

Secondly, dating back to Gretzky’s minor-hockey days, parents didn’t have to take out a second mortgage just to provide their son or daughter with a stick. The local gas station solved that problem, thank you very much.

“That’s the way it was,” Gretzky said. “I remember being at a gas station — I think it was an Esso — you’d stop to get gas and you could get two sticks for $1.99. And my dad would buy me two sticks because that’s what I’d use for the next three months.”

These days, two bucks won’t get you a roll of tape. Instead, parents often shell out hundreds of dollars for chemically constructed sticks that at times implode at the slightest pressure, causing the bank accounts of moms and dads everywhere to take another hit.

Truth be told, while the cost of playing hockey continues to soar, enrolment numbers in the sport continue to sag. It’s a concern that those in Hockey Canada are attempting to alleviate every day.

Keeping that in mind, we posed the question to the game’s all-time leading scorer: Has hockey turned into an elitist sport that only the wealthy can afford to play?



For his part, Gretzky has a more difficult time solving this dilemma than he did solving opposing goalies during his playing days.

“You’re right, it’s a crisis,” he finally admitted. “But it’s one not only for hockey, but for every walk of life, whether it be going to restaurants or buying clothing or playing sports.

“It’s a concern for everyone. And it should be a concern.”

According to Wayne Gretzky, it always has been — at least in the Great One’s lifetime, anyway.

Gretzky insists the issue of escalating expenses has been a problem that has plagued the sport of hockey for generations dating back to the time when he was a wee boy in Brantford whose father Walter would do whatever it took so that his son could step on to the ice.

“Somebody said to me: ‘Do you think you could have played (in these times) ... could your parents have afforded to have you play?’ And I tell them quite honestly, ‘My parents couldn’t even afford it back when I was a kid.’ My dad always had to borrow money from his mother to buy me a new pair of skates. Or if I needed a new pair of gloves.

“Back in those days, my dad didn’t have the wherewithal to get through it. That’s why communities become important and imperative. We had a couple of teammates whose families were a little more wealthy that took care of other kids. You know: ‘We need that kid on the team, but his family can’t afford to put him there.’ That’s when other parents would jump in and say: ‘We’ll take care of that young boy and make sure he’s there.’

“That goes on all the time.”

Gretzky feels such generosity still exists today, whether it be from parents who are better off financially, or thanks to efforts from organizations like the National Hockey League Players’ Association that has, over the years, donated $22 million to grass-roots hockey programs and related causes in 33 countries. Through the donation of equipment grants via the NHLPA’s Goals & Dreams program, more than 70,000 kids have been provided the opportunity to play hockey.

“Fortunately, we (also) have great companies across the country that set up in the communities foundations that help out kids who are less fortunate,” Gretzky said. “There’s charity golf events. And the NHL guys in each community are great in trying to help kids who can’t afford to play or ice time or equipment.

“So it’s always going to be that way as we move forward as things get more expensive.”

The bottom line: The high price of playing hockey is a road block that isn’t about to go away.

Then again, dating back to Wayne Gretzky’s own minor hockey days, it never has.

mzeisberger@postmedia.com

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