Shelley Wylie learned a hard lesson about the cost of putting a child through hockey when her husband and young player son, Wyatte, both had their equipment stolen.
“When we sat down to figure out how much it would be to replace it, it was nearly $5,000,” Lake Stevens resident Wylie said. “That was for two bags of equipment and about four sticks — on top of everything else we were paying.”
Wylie’s defenseman son is now a training-camp hopeful with the National Hockey League (NHL) Philadelphia Flyers after a strong season with the Everett Silvertips, of the major junior Western Hockey League (WHL). But getting him there required logistical and financial sacrifices not all families are prepared to make.
“The cost is unbelievable, especially at the higher level with the travel,” Wylie said. “When you play a high level around here, most of the games are in Canada. So, you’re paying for hotels, you’re paying for tournament costs and things like that.
“If it wasn’t for grandparents helping out, I don’t know how we’d have done it.”
As Seattle prepares to welcome a new NHL team in 2021, returning top level professional hockey to the city for the first time since 1924, the fervor is already growing. Season tickets have flown off the shelf, and work on renovating the 57-year-old KeyArena is in full swing. But whether that excitement will translate to an increase in youth participation is an open question, even as local coaches and organizers expect a major influx of children playing hockey.
Unlike many other sports, hockey faces particular cost challenges for equipment, precious access to ice time and — here in Washington — tournaments and playing opportunities elsewhere in search of better competition.
The region’s four main amateur hockey programs — Sno-King, the Seattle Junior Hockey Association (SJHA), Everett Youth Hockey and the all-girls Western Washington Female Hockey Association (WWFHA) — defray costs with free hockey clinics to try the sport, scholarships for underprivileged families and lower-cost equipment rental (while supplies last) for beginner programs. The arrival of an NHL franchise will also generate three new ice surfaces at a planned Northgate Mall training center that — combined with two new ice sheets being built in Snoqualmie — should reduce travel times some families face getting children to practices and games.
But putting kids through hockey is still an involved process; even in recreational, or “house league” hockey played only at local rinks, registration fees are typically beyond $1,000 — and growing with each step up the elite level ladder.
Wyatte Wylie began playing at age 7. At one point, his parents would drive him 45 minutes from Lake Stevens to an arena in Kirkland several times per week.
The Wylies said they were told by “hockey higher-ups” they’d eventually need to send Wyatte and an older brother, Wade, outside Washington to fully develop as players given the lack of local competition. Wade wound up in California, while Wyatte, at 15, joined an elite youth-development team in Dallas for a year.
“We probably paid upwards of $20,000 that season,” she said of the Texas stint. “That’s strictly billet (room and board) fees, hockey travel and gear.’’
The costs of all elite youth “select’’ or “travel’’ team sports has risen for years to where critics suggest it prices out less-wealthy families.
Besides lacrosse — which is expensive because of high fees, training, travel and equipment — hockey is the priciest. A Utah State study from 2016 estimated the average family spent $7,000 annually on hockey compared to $7,900 for lacrosse, $4,000 for baseball, $2,700 for football, $1,500 for soccer and just more than $1,100 for basketball.
Unlike basketball or soccer, outfitting for hockey requires more than a uniform. And while football teams typically supply helmets, shoulder pads and padded pants, hockey equipment — especially skates — can be highly customized and usually must be purchased.
A new pair of top Bauer or CCM skates with hard molded boot supports can run $900, full-caged helmets $250 and higher, shoulder pads and pants $200 apiece, while a graphite stick can cost $300. Want some Bauer Vapor 1X hockey gloves to hold that stick? That’s another $225.
Add the neck guard ($30), mouth guard ($40), jock (or Jill) strap and cup ($35), shin pads ($180), elbow pads ($150), socks ($40) and practice jersey ($20), plus the hockey bag to carry all that equipment — another $150 for today’s wheeled versions — and budgets quickly hit $2,000.
And that’s not a one-time purchase, as younger players outgrow gear.
Granted, not every beginner needs top-of-the-line equipment. Some websites advertise outfitting beginners with equipment packages (minus skates) from $500 to $700. But like anything else, there’s peer pressure and parents not wanting their child to be the only one lugging an old duffel bag containing Grandpa’s skates.
Doug Kirton, youth director for the Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association, said most children — especially beginners — don’t need much of the fancier equipment he’s seen them show up wearing.
Kirton said Sno-King, which operates in Kirkland and Renton, has programs for children ages 4 to 9 that offset the entry cost for beginners.
“That is one of the things that seems to hold people back because they think it’s expensive to rent gear, and it’s not,” he said. “So, they can try it and see if they like the game.”
About 400 kids are currently registered in an hourlong “Try Hockey for Free” program run by the association that provides complimentary use of skates and wooden sticks and teaches hockey basics. Another 500 are in Sno-King’s six-week Hockey 1 beginner program offering full equipment rental for an extra $30 in addition to the $180 registration fee.
And a more advanced, 16-week Hockey 2 beginner program, for ages 5 through 9, offers equipment rental for $80 in addition to the $350 registration fee and annual $61 payment to USA Hockey.
The Mountlake Terrace-based SJHA, Everett Youth Hockey and Shoreline-based all-girls WWFHA have similar free clinics to try the sport and low-cost equipment rental plans for beginner programs.
It’s a far cry from when Kirton, 52, a onetime New Jersey Devils draft pick and German league pro player, grew up in Ontario wearing hand-me-down equipment from family and friends.
“We have all sorts of ways now to get into the game that are cost-effective,” Kirton said. “I think we’ve made it affordable to get in. It’s just the proximity of rinks and being able to get there on a regular basis in order to get to practice that are some of the issues we’ve had to deal with.”
The shortage of ice rinks locally is hard for players and parents. Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie as a boy traveled an hour each way from Stanwood to a rink in Mountlake Terrace.
The NHL knows the difficulties of access to hockey nationwide.
“For sure, the cost of hockey — the gear and everything that goes with it, like ice time — is very expensive,” said Kim Davis, the league’s executive vice president of social impact and growth initiatives.
Davis said the NHL’s Industry Growth Fund, established six years ago by the league and its players’ union, is one solution devised to “provide programs to reduce the cost.’’
The fund allocates about $20 million annually in seed money to projects within communities — including ball hockey leagues, upgrading of local rinks and free or subsidized equipment loaned out to hockey beginners.
“It’s really exposed so many kids to the sport across North America,” Davis said, placing the number of hockey newcomers at 50,000. In the Seattle area, the new NHL team’s management is considering street or ball hockey leagues for far-flung communities where ice access is limited.
But that still doesn’t address the cost of playing beyond beginner levels. Playing for elite or “travel” teams can easily cost $10,000 per child as hockey teams often must venture beyond state borders for competition.
Sno-King director Kirton said playing for his association’s 16-and-under Junior Thunderbirds selects team involves a basic registration fee approaching $5,000, with travel and accommodations sometimes doubling that amount.
“We’ve been able to go up to Canada a lot to get high-level play, so we’ve been lucky that way,” Kirton said. “But you’re throwing in some plane tickets, some hotel nights and travel. That high end can get pretty high.
“But where you skew the numbers is when the whole family travels to Minnesota for a tournament. I mean, everybody wants to tell me how much money they spent last year. And I’m like, ‘Wait, we have chaperones that can look after every kid.’ “
Kirton’s organization offers financial aid for beginner and elite players demonstrating hardship.
“We’ve got elite players that have … proven they can play hockey, and the coach will come to you and say, ‘I need this kid on the team,’” Kirton said. “Or, ‘This kid has put so much work into hockey but his parents can’t afford for him to play.’ You can’t lock someone like that out anymore.”
Everett Youth Hockey has similar 18-and-under and 16-and-under teams under the Junior Silvertips name.
Wyatte Wylie spent a season with the 16U team starting at 14, and his mother figures it cost the family about $10,000. Wyatte left for Dallas and stronger competition the next season and by 2016 graduated to Everett’s WHL Silvertips, a major junior club that pays stipends to players and covers all travel and equipment.
“It was like having a second job because of all the money we saved,” Shelley Wylie said with a chuckle.
With her son, now 19 and knocking on the NHL’s door, the struggle seems worth it at times. But then again, she cautioned, he hasn’t made it yet.
“We sometimes joke about it,’’ Wylie said. “That if he gets there, it’ll be his turn to take care of us.”