In a municipality divided against itself, many Delta sports teams are struggling to remain competitive against their more populous neighbours. This month, we’re looking at how associations are keeping teams going – and why many are deciding to join forces.
Ken Priestlay knew his team was getting tired.
The South Delta Midget A1 hockey team was tied 3-3 against the Seafair Islanders in the gold medal game of the 2016 Richmond International Bantam Midget Tournament.
The shifts were getting shorter. Boys who were normally out on the ice for a minute or more were heading back after 45 seconds. Overtime started and it was four on three, with South Delta in the power play.
The players on the bench were standing. Priestlay could sense their anxiety and excitement. Then, almost as soon as it began, it was over. South Delta had won.
“It was a huge accomplishment,” Priestlay said. “It’s been a long time since they have been able to do that.”
Back in the late ’80s and the ’90s Delta was “the association to play for,” Mike Langston, North Delta Minor Hockey Association vice-president, said. But now, Priestlay’s gold-winning team is the exception rather than the rule.
Some of the best players on the team weren’t at tryouts in August, Priestlay said. They had gone to play for the hockey academies, or for the major midget team (a more competitive hockey league), or for the second-ranked junior hockey team.
But they came back to play for South Delta and that, Priestlay said, was why his team was able to become the fifth-ranked team in Flight 1 – the highest level of competition in minor hockey – for the 2016-2017 season.
Without them, it wouldn’t have worked.
This is the problem facing sports associations across North and South Delta. Players are leaving minor-level community associations to play sports in other places.
For hockey, some players are leaving for the highly successful academies offered through the Delta School District.
“It’s an attractive thing to a parent who sees their kid maybe trying to pursue a career in hockey,” Priestlay said.
The players in the academies get more ice time and often better coaches, and with that, the opportunity to become better hockey players.
The academies aren’t the only place players go when they want to be pushed harder. The rise of elite teams in a number of different sports has also contributed to the exodus of Delta players.
In hockey these are the winter clubs, which Langston said are able to afford better coaches for their teams. In softball, it’s teams like the White Rock Renegades.
Emily Bancroft, a 12-year-old softball and soccer player, considered trying out for the Renegades. She wants to play softball for Team Canada one day, and thought the coaching provided by the Renegades could help her chances.
Bancroft’s mother, Susan Chan, explained why.
“You have to look at it from their perspective six years from now,” she said, looking out to the wet soccer field where her daughter was practicing with the team.
“You have to look at where are they going to go for schooling and all of that. So you want to give them the most opportunity.”
Bancroft ultimately decided to stay with the Delta Heat, the A-level rep association.
“I love playing on the Delta Heat, and it’s what I’ve grown up playing. So I don’t want to switch.”
Not everyone thinks like Bancroft however, and the result is fewer people register for minor sports in Delta.
Take the former Delta lacrosse associations, which merged in 2015.
At the associations’ height in 2003, North Delta had 263 box lacrosse registrations and South Delta had 369. By 2013, those numbers had fallen to 140 and 281 respectively.
According to Darcy Phillips, the president of the merged Delta Lacrosse Association, there weren’t any other options.
“We’re governed by numbers,” he said. “If you got 30 kids registered, you’re going to put out two teams. Your top end kids are going to be on one team and your lower skill level kids are going to be on that second team.”
This discrepancy can lead to even more kids dropping out of sports, Phillips said, as less able players might feel intimidated by the level of play.
But more importantly, it reduces the competitiveness of top-level teams.
At the second level of rep softball, the B level, Delta Fastpitch president Chris Roper saw that firsthand.
“We were putting teams out there basically for the sake of putting teams out there,” he said. “They clearly didn’t have enough talent to have much success. “That got to be frustrating both for the teams involved and for us as administrators.”
It becomes a vicious cycle, where the best players leave associations to play for more competitive teams, which in turn makes it harder for the Delta associations to be competitive.
Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. There are a number of factors that influence the registration numbers in all sports, and not just at the rep level.
According to Chan, who’s on the executive of the SurDel Girls Soccer Association, the rising cost of living might push some families to move from Delta to other districts. There’s also the cost associated with playing rep sports, which can be prohibitively high for many families.
Then there’s the difficulty in promoting the different sports associations, as the Corporation of Delta doesn’t allow advertising in parks. And there’s also the sheer proliferation of sports, which can make it difficult for a kid to play rep for more than one.
But whatever the reason, both anecdotal evidence and hard numbers show fewer people registering for minor rep sports in Delta.
The solution, it seems, is to merge. By combining the dwindling resources of both North and South Delta, associations are able to field enough teams to let every kid play at their skill level. The best players can go to the A1 level, while other players can move down to A2 or B teams.
This will not only create better teams, Langston said, but also attract better coaches — building a cycle that runs in a positive direction.
“When you merge a program like [the Delta rep teams] together, you’re going to put together un- stoppable hockey teams,” he said. “And that gets coaches going. It gets really good coaches riled up and they want to be a part of it.”
The two Delta minor hockey associations talked about a form of merger last season, but postponed the final move until the 2018-2019 season, citing too many logistical difficulties to sort out before the puck dropped for 2017-2018.
But the hockey merger will happen.
“It may not be next year. It may not be the year after,” Langston said. “But it will happen due to the fact of declining numbers in rep hockey.
“If it was up to me, this merger would already be complete.”