When Laurel Rockwell thinks back to the days her three pre-teen children skied competitively, she doesn’t have fond memories. The kids weren’t enjoying it. The family was divided going to different locations for races. Worse, ski racing for three kids came with a price tag of nearly $10,000 per season.
“Registration was $4,000 or $5,000,” Laurel says. “Plus there was equipment, team suits. It’s a very, very expensive sport.”
Laurel is far from alone in feeling the financial sting of winter sports. Thankfully, seven years ago the Ottawa area mom found an alternative: speed skating.
“All three kids were registered, with equipment, for about $700. There’s not a lot of equipment involved in speed skating. The clubs always have rental skates.”
Now she’s the the president of the Gloucester Concordes Speed Skating Club and a referee. Her husband, John Weidemann, is a coach. One of the bonuses of the sport is that it doesn’t encourage competing beyond the regional level until you’re older than 14 or 15. “It makes it affordable,” says Laurel. “As soon as you’re introducing that level of competition where there’s travel, that adds to the cost.”
The Rockwells found a way to keep their family active during the winter without going broke. Whether you’re looking to cut the cost of organized sports or find less expensive alternatives, there’s a number of ways you can make getting active more affordable for your family this winter.
Curb equipment costs
Buying used equipment is key, says Kevin Manias. The high school chemistry teacher in Calgary is a lifelong skier who introduced his daughter, Tiana, to the slopes when she was four. She’s now nine.
“For gear, we keep costs down by shopping sales. For Tiana, I never buy new. I can buy skis, boots and outerwear at roughly 40 cents on the dollar at the used sale. But, you need to be shrewd and know your gear, so do some homework and know what you want before you get there. Then get there early.”
Even casual skiers can save money if they’re smart, Kevin says. “If you are only going to go out once or twice a year, buy yourself some boots and rent the rest of the equipment from a reputable shop in town. Don’t rent at the hill, because once you’re there they have you and if you want gear you’ll have to pay what they ask. There is lots of competition in town and this keeps the rental costs lower.”
Glen McCurdie, vice-president of membership services for Hockey Canada, says sometimes parents can get too caught up in outfitting their son or daughter in the latest gear. Problems can arise when there’s pressure to have matching bags, pants, helmets and gloves.
“The cost of equipment is, essentially, what a parent’s willing to pay,” says Glen, who also advocates buying quality pre-owned equipment, provided it is deemed safe to use.
Similar pressures exist in the figure skating world, says Jeff Partrick of Brandon, Man. Jeff is the director of coaching and skating programs with Skate Canada, the governing body for the sport. He says parents don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on new skating costumes or popular designer skating bags with wheels.
“The whole concept of a wheel bag is great. But, you can buy any kind of generic suitcasestyle wheelie bag,” he says. “If you do want to buy your child a figure-skating costume, you don’t have to buy it brand new. You can get used dresses that are 25 percent of the original cost.”
Bottom line: “You don’t need the special clothing. Anything will do. Just go out and skate,” he says.
Limit travel and tournaments
Skate Canada’s long-term athlete development strategy focuses on getting kids on the ice, not how many competitions they’re in.
“Don’t get in the car and travel three or four hours to a competition for your six-year-old. You can do a club competition that’s just as good and doesn’t involve the expense and the travel,” Jeff says.
Travel and ice availability can drive up the cost of hockey, too, Glen says. Whether your city doesn’t have enough rinks, or has too many privately owned rinks, chances are the cost of ice time has risen in recent years. But Glen notes it hasn’t affected the national registration numbers for hockey, which have remained relatively stable.
“Minimize the number of away tournaments, maximize ice time by having two teams at younger levels using one sheet of ice at the same time. There’s no reason for four-year-olds to play on the full ice,” Glen says.
“A general rule of thumb would be that the higher level of play, the higher the cost,” Glen says. That makes house league hockey a good option for cost-conscious families.
On the slopes, Kevin Manias says his family had to make some compromises, beyond equipment, to keep skiing. He used to buy a season pass at Lake Louise, but when the resort raised its prices, he switched to Sunshine Village.
“You have to shop around,” he says. “We always make use of the early bird sales. We buy our season pass before the previous season has even finished.”
Still, season passes, equipment and travel for himself, his wife, Carolina, and their daughter will set the family back about $2,500 for the winter.
The cold truth
The most important point is to encourage activity in young people. Jeff skated for 10 years at the national and international level before moving to Ottawa to work for Skate Canada 13 years ago.
“For my kids, I don’t really care if they don’t want to become figure skaters or hockey players. I just want them to have a good ability to skate,” Jeff says. “To encourage that whole active-for-life component is such a great thing to have when we live in a northern climate.
“I want them to grab on to something physical that they can do and they can learn that can take them through their life allowing them to remain active. If you are active as a young person and develop your motor skills, you can to pick up any sport at any stage of your life and be reasonably able to participate.”
You don’t have to sign up for an organized sport to get moving in the winter.
“In Calgary there are many lower cost activities that families can do on a winter day,” Kevin says.
“We have community skating rinks that are free to use. There are plenty of hills, so sledding and tobogganing are a good way to spend an afternoon. The mountains are a short drive away and snowshoes and cross-country skis can be rented at a pretty low cost. As well, some hiking trails are kept open during winter, although it is always advisable to check the avalanche report before heading into the back-country.”
Don't let hockey put you in the poorhouse
Hockey Canada has recognized some families need help to afford the sport. In October, the organization launched a loyalty program called Club Hockey Canada.
“By shopping at specific gas stations or grocery stores, for example, you build up money in an account that at the end of the year you can push toward your child’s minor hockey registration or team fees,” Glen says. “Puck Bucks we call them.”
In some communities, the minor hockey program asks for help from the greater community to get kids on the ice. “We’re doing one in Saskatoon called Dreams Come True. We reach out to individuals in certain communities to provide hockey opportunities to those who may not be able to afford it. We provide them with equipment and an opportunity to try hockey for a day. Then we pay for the registration fees for the following year.” The following groups offer subsidies for hockey and other sports:
Dave Briggs is a freelance writer in Port Stanley, Ont., and a father of three. He spends winter skiing and watching football and hockey.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2012.