Indoor soccer rivals hockey in Alberta
Reprinted with the author's permission from
The Vancouver Sun, Saturday, January 16, 1999, B1 and B4

    It's the middle of the night in small-town Alberta and from somewhere comes the sound of a vehicle cranking over in the cold.

    Headlights wink-on and out the windshield the soft, falling snow appears as a swirling commotion against the morning's black curtain.

    It's a few minutes past 4:00 a.m. and the Canning family of Bon Accord, a bedroom community 30 km north of Edmonton, are living out a quintessential prairie experience - the much-too-early drive to the arena for a kid's game.

    In this case, though, the picture is a bit different from the classic moments portrayed in the commercials during Hockey Night In Canada. No hockey game for Rob and Gerry-Lee Cannings this chilly January morning. Their son Aaron, 10 and daughter Carla, 13, are being driven to play soccer in a four-field indoor complex in west Edmonton. Like thousands of other parents in the metro Edmonton area - and countless more throughout Alberta - the Cannings are converts to a game deemed a bastardized foreign sport not long ago.

    Indoor soccer is booming in Alberta and the city of Edmonton has become a fascinating study in this revolution. Always hockey mad, Edmonton is falling in love with indoor soccer as evidenced by the explosive growth of the game. Several new indoor fields are under construction or planned for the metro area, indoor soccer schools are now the rage and the Edmonton Drillers of the National Professional Soccer League are hard pressed to find practice times because recreational soccer games run morning to night. In actual fact, nearly as many kids play indoor soccer in Edmonton these days as hockey and the gap is quickly closing.

    All this, in the city Gretzky made famous? In Mark Messier's home town? "I think what we're finding here is a kind of reverse cultural evolution," explains Gary Sampley, executive director of the Alberta Soccer Association. "Normally, kids tended to gravitate towards the sports, like hockey, that their parents played and watched."

    But now, he says, kids are discovering soccer on their own and parents are forced along for the ride.

    "Even 20 years ago this would have been considered an immigrant sport," says Sampley. "But we've seen kids dragging their parents to soccer and the parents are becoming educated."

    Alberta actually has a long soccer history, stretching back to the first recorded game played in Fort Edmonton in 1869. The provincial soccer association was formed in 1911, two years before it's national counterpart. While the outdoor game quietly grew and flourished, especially in ethnic communities, Edmonton got its first taste of world-class soccer glamour when Edmonton Oiler owner Peter Pocklington brought a North American Soccer League franchise to Edmonton in 1979 and called it the Drillers.

    In 1981, the team played an indoor season in the 17,000-seat Coliseum and actually won the championship. The original Drillers eventually folded, but a legacy was created when in 1984 a group of local soccer boosters put a plastic dome over some city tennis courts and spawned recreational indoor soccer. Scab-kneed fanatics were soon running, kicking and tackling atop the asphalt surface.

    About a year after that, an old warehouse in east Edmonton was converted to a two-field facility, complete with artificial turf. Then in 1995 a magnificently functional four-field facility was erected in the city's west, complete with an upstairs licensed lounge where spectators could watch any of the four games while enjoying a pint.

    Next fall, an identical four-field facility will open in northeast Edmonton, which is great news for players, coaches and parents. Right now, with only six pitches, games begin at 5:30 a.m. on weekends and go steady all day until past midnight.

    On weekdays the games begin at 5:30 p.m. - a tight squeeze for working parents - and again run past midnight.

    Today, there are 7,500 Edmonton kids play indoor soccer on the city's six fields, with another 1,300 kids commuting in to play from one of the satellite communities. It works out to about 1,470 soccer players per indoor pitch. In comparison, hockey has about 8,600 kids playing on 30 surfaces, or about 290 players per rink.

Game takes off
  • The Alberta Soccer Association is the largest sporting organization in the province. It is also the third largest in the country, behind Quebec and Ontario.
  • Edmonton is host city for the Canadian national soccer team and in 1994 produced the biggest crowd to ever watch a soccer game in this country - 52,000 for Brazil versus the nationals.
  • The city's Commonwealth Stadium will again welcome Brazil this June for a four-team Canada Cup. Brazil's ranks include the globe's most celebrated soccer star, Renaldo.

"No question, soccer is booming here. It's amazing actually, with the growth of indoor soccer, that we didn't see a drop in hockey registration. God knows why."

- Dick White, president of the Edmonton
Minor Hockey Association.

Hockey registration in Edmonton has actually increased slightly over the last few years, much to some people's amazement. The credit, in part, goes to charitable organizations which provide used equipment, free of charge, to kids from needy families. The city's population overall continues to grow, as well, with the positive economic outlook.

    Sampley, and others, are convinced that once the four new fields are brought on stream, scores of new soccer teams will form because they'll be able to more easily access decent playing times.

    John Dance, who runs the four-field Edmonton Soccer Centre, says that when Edmonton only had two indoor soccer fields there were only 80 teams playing. Now, with six fields, there are 777.

    He predicts there will be 1,000 teams at this time next year. Who knows what the numbers will be like when the bordering suburbs of Sherwood Park and St. Albert add two more fields each, as is planned?

    The popularity of the game doesn't surprise Ross Ongaro, a home-town lad who became a professional player and now coaches the indoor Drillers. Ongaro says the team, only one of two indoor pro teams in Canada, is drawing 5,000-plus every game.

    And it's not unusual afterwards to have 400-500 giddy kids seeking autographs outside the team dressing room.

    That's quite a different scene from NHL Edmonton Oilers games, where only the well-heeled and some select kids get access to the upscale lounge area outside the hockey team's dressing room. Ongaro thinks the difference is symbolic of a problem in professional hockey. The NHL players are so rich now, they often have to be roped off, like museum objects.

    In contrast, his players are routinely doing school visits, clinics and soccer schools, to take the game to the kids.

    There are some other, practical reasons why soccer has caught on with kids and parents. First of all, both girls and boys play and you don't have to be a genetic giant to excel. The game is relatively clean, as well, and hasn't yet been marred by the kinds of disturbing stories you hear about win-at-all-costs hockey coaches, players and parents.

    It's cheap - a pair of soccer shoes can be had for as little as $30 and a pair of shinpads are $15. Registration costs under $150 per kid for an entire winter's worth of games.

    Consider, too, that games are almost always on the same day of the week, allowing people to plan well in advance for rides, babysitters or other family activities. The indoor game, played inside boards, with a goalie, two defence and three forwards, is also easy for hockey-literate parents to understand.

    "It's a fast-paced game and the spectators really love it," says Ric Valentyn, executive director of the Edmonton Minor Soccer Association. So much so that the spectators have taken up the game. Consider that there are now 25 indoor soccer teams in a division for women over 30, where only two years ago there were none.

    "Every age group is playing this game," says John Dance. "It's just really catching on."

    Rob Canning, sits up in the bleachers, sleepily sipping a coffee and watching his daughter Carla's team play. Canning loves the exercise his kids get playing indoor soccer, but says yes, it is a great game to watch, as well.

    But both he and his wife say this elegant game, even when its played indoors, seems to be a kinder, gentler sport than hockey. Maybe it's because the kids aren't influenced by the pros, the way minor hockey players often are.

    Or maybe it's because parents don't have any illusions of their kids reaching the professional ranks and are therefore more likely to lay off referees and players.

    "You don't see the bickering that you see in hockey," says Gerry-Lee Canning, who has a 17-year-old son who played hockey while growing up. "It's a clean game," she adds. "There just seems to be more good sportsmanship, in comparison to hockey."

    Rob Canning nods his head and says hockey seemed more political, overall. "A lot of people left hockey and came to soccer for that reason."

    Sampley concurs, saying soccer officials know that much of indoor soccer's growth has come from kids who were playing hockey.

    "That's not an anti-hockey thing," says Sampley. "Hockey is such a sacred cow in this country and I recognize that.

    "But many people want to play soccer and now they can - year-round."

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Posted 5 April 1999, D. Hitch