Boys and girls face off over ice time

Most animated discussions about children’s hockey tend to centre on when to let youngsters play Full Contact, or how to keep parents from muscling into the game.

But in Oakville, 40 km west of Toronto, the feud is over ice time. The debate has spilled out from the arenas and into the newspaper headlines.

The tussle has pitted the community’s Minor Oaks Hockey Association (MOHA), which is primarily made up of boys, against the girls-only Oakville Hornets. The girls are fighting for equal time, or in this case, equal ice.

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The girls‘ league alleges the uneven allocation of ice time at Oakville’s municipal arenas has become a human rights issue. As with every good hockey fight, this one brings bags of history into the fray.

Early history

Children’s hockey has long been closely associated with 6 a.m. practices. Not because hockey-loving kids and parents have no need for sleep. Municipal arenas are expensive to build and maintain, and they are generally in short supply. Hockey teams learn to grab ice time when they can.

In Oakville, the town has used what’s been called an historical allocation policy. Simply put, the boys were here first, so they have first dibs on ice time. What’s left is carved up between the girls league and other sports clubs whose members figure skate or speed skate.

There aren’t enough municipally-owned arenas to satisfy current demands.

The Hornets league has had to purchase alternative ice time at privately-owned arenas which generally charge twice as much. For parents, the new math is simple: higher rink expenses means higher registration fees.

Girls growth spurt

That girls hockey in Oakville has grown in popularity roughly 400 per cent in the past ten years, to 800 girls, has only compounded the problem. The Hornets pressed town council for equal access to the less-expensive municipal ice, with little success.

In the spring of 2005, the Hornets said the cost of renting the private ice had pushed the coming season’s budget too high. If the club charged fees to cover the true cost of girls hockey, only the most affluent families could afford to pay. In a letter to parents, it warned the inequity could become a human rights issue.

That got Oakville councillors‘ attention.

Now, not only will the two groups share equal ice beginning in 2006/2007, but other sports, such as speed skating, will have a bigger blade to wield when municipal ice is carved up.

The extra ice won’t be available until construction has been completed on a new municipal rink. In the meantime, municipal council has decided to give the Hornets several thousand dollars to offset this year’s extra costs.

Cue the outrage

Some parents had barely finished untying their child’s skates before penning their letters to the editor. Here’s why: the boys‘ league also buys some of the pricey private ice time.

MOHA says it supports the equal allocation of ice but also says helping to subsidize the girls league this year does little to level the playing surface. For years, MOHA has failed to convince council to grant money to offset the ice fees charged to its parents and players.

But it’s not entirely about ice. Both leagues prefer the lower cost of the  municipal rinks.  But those private facilities are newer and nicer to play in.

MOHA reasons that if the town subsidizes girls, even if only for a stop-gap year, a new gender inequity has been born.

The gloves come off

The feud that initially showed some lame flailing has started to land hard punches. A local newspaper published an editorial titled „Gender-bias, Schmender-bias.“

A Hornets director rebutted with a public accusation that the newspaper had taken „editorial journalism to a new low.“

Both leagues have posted their positions on their websites (see links below), nestled between on-line registration forms and picture galleries boasting last year’s smiling team photos.

Lost in the debate, wedged somewhere between good intentions and adult egos, is the glint of something positive. More girls, and by extension more young Canadians, are being drawn to what’s still popularly considered our national game.

Short term vs long haul

There’s no reason to believe the issue will die down even after the Hornets spend this year’s bonus from town hall. Oakville is one of Ontario’s fastest-growing communities. As both leagues point out, the city’s own population projections show the ice time issue becoming more acute. Another five rinks are needed in this community.

The real solution may yet be found in the deep pockets of some local entrepreneurs who smell a good investment opportunity in the basics of supply and demand. Private arenas may beat the city to the punch.

In the meantime, it’s game on.

Diana Swain is the host of the Toronto edition of CBC NEWS: Canada Now and a parent of two hockey players. One plays in the boys league in Oakville, the other in the girls league.

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