By Allan Muir
Need more proof that the greatest hurdle facing our sport is the cost of playing it?
Consider the case of J.J. Watt. The Wisconsin-born Watt is a beast of a man, a 6'-5", 288-pound game changer who last season was named defensive player of the year.
But Watt earned that honor in the National Football League instead of the NHL. And as the star defensive end revealed to SI.com's Peter King yesterday, that wasn't the way he hoped things would go down.
“I grew up in Wisconsin loving hockey. I mean, I started when I was three years old on skates. I played all over—in Canada all the time, all over the U.S., over in Germany for a 10-day tournament. Hockey, honestly, was my first love. The excitement, the fast pace, the intensity of the game … I still love it to this day. Really, I had to quit. It was financial. I have two younger brothers and we were all playing on a travel team, and it was extremely expensive. My family is a middle class family. When I grew up and learned how much it actually cost for us to play hockey, I could not believe that my parents let us play as long as they did. Now I’m forever grateful for my parents even giving me the opportunity, because honestly those were some of the best years of my life. Now that I understand how much it cost, I’m so thankful to my parents.”
It's the sort of story that resonates, especially right now as parents try to scrape together the funds to pay for this season's registration fees. And while there's plenty of talk, and even some action being taken, it's not going to lead to the sort of fundamental paradigm change that would allow promising players in situations like the one Watt grew up in to keep playing the game.
Just for a point of comparison, a season of A-level travel hockey where I live (near Dallas) will set you back about four grand . . . not including travel costs and uniform fees. Any wonder enrollment is declining? You look at this guy wreaking unholy havoc for the Houston Texans and imagine the menacing presence down the middle he would have made for an NHL team. And you wonder how many more like him hockey has lost along the way.