Despite the Edmonton Oilers making it to the Stanley Cup finals, Canada’s national sport is taking a swift kick in the butt, and not just because World Cup soccer begins on June 9.
"One day hockey may no longer be Canada’s national sport," says expert demographer Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS). "My polls show there is no common sport any more that unites Canadians in all regions. In the absence of [NHL] hockey, you find baseball and curling is doing well in the Maritimes, football is doing well in Quebec, and basketball and soccer are doing well in Ontario. In the Prairies, it’s curling by far, and in B.C., it’s still hockey."
The changing face of Canadian sport, Jedwab says, is mainly due to immigration patterns. "A lot of communities that are arriving here, the sports they are interested in are not always the ones that are traditional to Canada," Jedwab explains. "Soccer is one of the fastest-growing sports in Canada. And if you’re Nike or another sports enterprise in Canada right now, if you don’t put skates on a lot of these kids from South Asia and China, then you better think about manufacturing soccer balls and soccer equipment."
The role of Canada’s visible minorities in the world of pro sports will be examined at the ACS’s one-day national symposium at McGill on June 27. The event will also commemorate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking pro baseball’s colour barrier with the Montreal Royals in 1946, before Robinson was called up to the major league Brooklyn Dodgers the following year.
"There will continue to be a smorgasbord of sports in [Canada's] future," explains expert demographer Jedwab, who wrote the widely acclaimed 1996 book Jackie Robinson’s Unforgettable Season of Baseball in Montreal and also teaches a course on pro sports at McGill. "Some sports will have trouble surviving. Soccer is popular because it’s relatively inexpensive. Hockey, on the other hand, is expensive and will have to adjust its marketing and outreach to young people if it wants to stay competitive."
Adds Jedwab, "No one would ever have predicted the death of the Expos 20 years ago, or the [NBA] Grizzlies in British Columbia. But Canada is a small-market country. If you don’t want to lose your base you have to adapt to a changing environment."