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Ice time crunch in Montreal could spell end of inclusive hockey program for kids

Samuel, 6, loves the Avalanche Kidz Hockey program, and his father Charlie Flicker said it would be 'extremely sad' for it to shut down due to the lack of ice time availability in the Montreal area.  (Douglas Gelevan/CBC - image credit)
Samuel, 6, loves the Avalanche Kidz Hockey program, and his father Charlie Flicker said it would be 'extremely sad' for it to shut down due to the lack of ice time availability in the Montreal area. (Douglas Gelevan/CBC - image credit)

When six-year-old Samuel hits the ice, his eyes light up with unrestrained enthusiasm as he skates as hard as he can, doing his best to replicate the moves of his heroes that play for the Montreal Canadiens.

"I love it! It's like a 10 out of 10 for me. I really like it," Samuel said in between breaths after giving it his all on the ice for 50 minutes with Avalanche Kidz Hockey.

Avalanche Kidz Hockey caters to children on the autism spectrum or kids who have additional needs that can't quite be met in more traditional hockey programs.

Samuel's father, Charlie Flicker, said that without it, his son wouldn't be playing the game he loves.

"He didn't feel comfortable joining a mainstream program and this was the perfect entry point for him," Flicker said. "He's got incredible attention from the coaches on the ice who cater their instruction to him and his needs."

But even though interest in the program is growing, it may have to shut down completely. That's because finding space for kids to play hockey in Montreal can be extremely difficult.

"I don't want to think about it. I don't want to even mention it to any of the families," said Linda Matteo, the program's co-founder, when asked about the prospect of the Avalanche Kidz Hockey program coming to an end.

"If this program folds, unfortunately, all of these families will be devastated. And I can't let the children down."

Linda Matteo, pictured here wearing a black jacket and a grey hoodie and surrounded by a host of coaches and volunteers, says many families depend on the Avalanche Kidz Hockey program.
Linda Matteo, pictured here wearing a black jacket and a grey hoodie and surrounded by a host of coaches and volunteers, says many families depend on the Avalanche Kidz Hockey program.

Linda Matteo, pictured here wearing a black jacket and a grey hoodie and surrounded by a host of coaches and volunteers, says many families depend on the Avalanche Kidz Hockey program. (Douglas Gelevan/CBC)

Ice time at a premium

For most publicly owned rinks, municipal or borough managers are in charge of allocating the ice time.

Typically, they will give a certain number of weekly hours to local hockey associations. It's then up to those associations to decide how the ice time is shared among its teams. The rest of the available hours are then given to other groups at the city or borough manager's discretion. Hockey associations are also allowed to give any of their unused allotted ice time to other groups, like Avalanche Kidz Hockey.

But Brenda Gallant, the president of the NDG Minor Hockey Association, said there is never any extra ice time during primetime hours — like Sundays, for example —  and it's already hard enough to find enough time for current members.

Many of the children in the hockey program live in the city of Côte Saint-Luc.
Many of the children in the hockey program live in the city of Côte Saint-Luc.

Many of the children in the hockey program live in the city of Côte Saint-Luc. (Ariel Davidson)

She said her association often has to divide a sheet of ice to allow two or three groups to play at the same time. It also needs to pay private arenas for extra time slots to meet their teams' demands.

Mike Tarasco, communications director for Hockey Saint-Laurent, said the situation is similarly challenging for his organization.

"Ice time is at a premium and we're always looking for more," Tarasco said.

Most hockey associations in the Montreal area don't offer programs that are as inclusive as Avalanche Kidz Hockey.
Most hockey associations in the Montreal area don't offer programs that are as inclusive as Avalanche Kidz Hockey.

Most hockey associations in the Montreal area don't offer programs that are as inclusive as Avalanche Kidz Hockey. (Stephanie Lehrer)

The Westmount Minor Hockey Association spokesperson Sebastian Samuel said Sunday morning ice time is "highly solicited and very limited," making it impossible for them to accommodate any additional requests.

Avalanche Kidz Hockey is privately run, which means it has even fewer options since it relies heavily on the unused ice time given to minor hockey associations to get playing time for its kids.

More families are trying to enrol their children into the program because most minor hockey associations don't offer programs that are as inclusive.

"We have people coming from all over the greater Montreal area, off island as well, just to come join our program because they're not finding anything that can help their child," Matteo said.

Côte Saint-Luc hockey group questions city's ice-time allocation

Although children can sign up for Avalanche Kidz Hockey regardless of where they live, Matteo said 80 per cent of children in her program are from Côte Saint-Luc.

She says it already has a waiting list for next year with 70 kids from that city who want to play.

Côte Saint-Luc Minor Hockey Association president Matt Cutler helped Matteo and her program access two hours of ice time at Ed Meagher Arena during the 2022-2023 season. This season, it helped the Avalanche kids get four hours — three at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf and one at Samuel Moskovitch.

He is frustrated with the city's management of ice time at Samuel Moskovitch.

He said it is not reacting to the evolving needs of residents. In addition to the kids who skate with the Avalanche program, his organization's membership has grown from 150 to 363 in recent years.

Cutler says the city is prioritizing ice time for other groups which include many people who do not live in Côte Saint-Luc.

"Why are you neglecting your citizens?" Cutler said. "These are your constituents. They voted for you."

The city declined CBC's request for an interview. In an email exchange, spokesperson Darryl Levine acknowledged that ice time is given to some children who don't live in Côte Saint-Luc.

"This includes some children in the figure skating club, learn-to-skate programs, and open skate. It also includes all the players of all the visiting teams who play minor hockey on our ice. We welcome everyone."

This season, the program was able to find ice time for its players at  Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf.
This season, the program was able to find ice time for its players at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf.

This season, the program was able to find ice time for its players at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf. (Ariel Davidson)

Levine also points out that the Côte Saint-Luc Minor Hockey Association Hockey was given 32 hours per week this season which is "by far the most ice time of any group" and that "we rent this limited resource in a way that is fair."

Culter says his goal is not to kick out other groups from the the city's arena but as things stand, one of the association's biggest expenses comes from renting ice from private rinks in order to meet its needs.

Avalanche Kidz Hockey is facing some difficult decisions, and players like six-year-old Samuel may not have a place to play next season.

His dad says losing the program due to the lack of available ice time would be "extremely sad."

"It makes such a difference in the lives of the kids," Flicker said.

For now, his son will continue to savour every second he gets to spend on the ice.

"I just wait to play because I really like playing hockey. So I just don't want to miss any hockey," said the six-year old.

"It's been fun making friends and I really just like playing with them."