Canadian Ball Hockey Association president Shelley Callaghan admits her sport has a stigma that never seems to fade away.
It’s that many people still see it as a simple game of pick-up street hockey moved indoors and have no idea of how it is played at the elite level.
That ignorance may or may not have had an adverse effect on the growth of the sport or on the amount of publicity it gets from the national media. However, according to Callaghan, registration numbers in Canada have never been stronger.
“People think it isn’t as organized as say hockey,” said Callaghan. “Some local leagues lack coaching and structure and some like it that way because they say it’s more fun. But the more you get into the provincials and the nationals, you realize this is pretty heavy-duty.
“I don’t disagree that the (negative) perception is there,” said Callaghan. “But the more people who are able to get out and see the world championships, the more they see that it is a classy game and quite structured.”
And it’s growing in popularity across the country and the world.
Right now, there are 40,000, but Callaghan said all of the registrations from the provinces are not it yet as this is just the start of the season. She expects close to 50,000 when the full registration is known.
“Almost half of our membership is from minor (6-19 years) ball hockey leagues,” explained Callaghan, who is from Ottawa.
“We have various age groups, like hockey,” she explained about the minor ranks.
Some of the hot spots for minor ball hockey include Ontario, British Columbia and in Alberta. And, it should be noted, 14 of the 24 players listed on Canada’s national men’s team roster are from Quebec.
“Ball hockey is also growing immensely in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. And it’s starting to take off in Newfoundland and Labrador as well.”
Callaghan, who is in St. John’s for the 2013 world men’s and women’s ball hockey championships, said “A lot of people don’t know the opportunities that exist in ball hockey.
“It’s simply a fun game to play and many youngsters who pick up the game are surprised to find out they can one day wear their country’s jersey in tournaments all over the world.
International Street & Ball Hockey Federation (ISBHF) president George Gortsos, who is also in St. John’s this week, admitted there are doubters who see the sport as something less than hockey or even inline hockey, but Gortsos simply says, “People should get out and see the games and decided for themselves.
“When they see how hard these athletes work and their level of fitness, I think minds will be changed,” he said.
Meanwhile, Callaghan said she’s also seen growth in the female division of the sport.
“A lot of girls are amazed that they could play for Canada one day. We do a lot of scouting across Canada to find that one little diamond in the rough who could play for the national team.”
Having said that, Callaghan agreed there is little doubt the sport needs to build a higher profile across the country.
“We need to get some national sponsors to begin with,” she said. “We can’t rest on our laurels. We need to use the world championships as a springboard.
“This is a huge deal for us to be hosting this tournament in Canada. It’s like hosting a party.”
“Having all the nations here and to see all the smiling faces is a real treat. I’ve met several people from other countries at other world championships and it’s kind of like meeting some family members seeing them here.”
Some of the national teams are bolstered by Canadians. For example, Team Israel has six players from that country on the roster, with the rest coming from Canada.
Callaghan said she’s spoken with members of the Israeli team and they’ve indicated this world tournament was a great way to kick start their organization.
“They are very new, so there are a number of Israeli nationals on the team from Canada. And there are what’s called heritage players in Canada whose families are from the Israel.
There is also large-scale Canadian representation on teams representing Portugal, Italy and Greece. Germany team has 11 or 12 players from that country, with the rest of the team made up of German-Canadians.
She pointed out the United Kingdom team was initially based in British Columbia, but the members of men’s and women’s teams competing this week are all from the U.K. with U.K. passports. There are 30 men’s teams competing in the United Kingdom.
The sport is in the early development stages in such places as Bermuda, where teams used to play on an outdoor parking lot, but they’ve recently built an indoor facility specifically for ball hockey.
Ball hockey is already strong in countries such as Czech Republic and Slovakia.