Why has Saskatchewan produced so many NHL players?

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Saskatchewan has produced so many professional hockey players over the years that you would think there was something in the ice.

“Our province dominated every jurisdiction,” said Darrell Davis, author of Fire on Ice: Why Saskatchewan leads the NHL.

Saskatoon’s Gary Huang asked CBC’s new podcast Good question, Saskatchewan“Why do we produce so many professional hockey players?”

His son plays elite hockey and has dreamed of making the NHL since he learned to skate.

“I think it comes down to winter,” Huang said. “It depends on culture and passion.”

A casually dressed man poses with a boy holding hockey equipment.
Gary Huang of Saskatoon, left, poses with his son Kanye, who dreams of playing professional hockey. (Submitted by Gary Huang)

But is there something else?

The podcast team decided to interview people who know Saskatchewan hockey inside and out.

Let’s start with Hayley Wickenheiser’s mother, Marilyn.

Hayley, who grew up playing hockey in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, is an Olympic gold medal-winning hockey player who now works for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Marilyn credits the number of outdoor rinks in the province.

“I know when Haley was growing up skating outside, at an outdoor rink, she would just go out there and play and that’s how you learn,” she said. “Lots of practice.”

The other theory comes from Kelvington, Saskatchewan, where a population of around 980 has managed to produce six NHL players, including Wendel Clark.

“Saskatchewan is a great breeding ground because parents are the biggest factor in getting kids to play on a daily basis,” Clark said.

Clark emphasized the commitment needed to travel long distances to get kids to practices and games.

WATCH | Why Wendel Clark thinks Saskatchewan produces so many NHL players:

Why Wendel Clark thinks Saskatchewan produces so many NHL players

Former NHL player Wendel Clark says parents’ commitment to hockey in Saskatchewan helps the province produce so many NHL players.

But will Saskatchewan remain a hotbed of hockey talent?

We are starting to see our numbers drop. During the 2009–10 season, there were 57 players from Saskatchewan in the NHL. This season, only 20 come from the province.

Marilyn Wickenheiser says part of the reason is the high cost of hockey.

“God, I don’t even know how much a stick cost back then. But I do know that every time a stick got broken, we were like, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Or skates,” she said, pointing to Hayley’s narrow feet that required special-order skates that were expensive.

A young girl poses for a photo in hockey gear (without helmet).
A young Hayley Wickenheiser poses for a team photo. (Submitted by Marilyn Wickenheiser)

Davis said Saskatchewan hockey players now compete with much stronger programs in the United States and Europe.

“Now you have to prove yourself at every level to advance,” he said. “And you need money to do that.”

Provincial demographics are also changing.

In recent years, the majority of immigrants to Saskatchewan have come from the Philippines, India, China, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where hockey is not part of children’s education.

“You teach the game now,” Clark said. “In the 80s and 90s, when I was playing, there was no need to teach the sport in Canada. It was a given that everyone knew about it.”

Clark said the best way to keep the sport strong is to share the love with newcomers.

LISTEN | Why does Saskatchewan produce so many professional hockey players?

3:59 p.m.Why does Saskatchewan produce so many professional hockey players?

Saskatchewan sends a lot of hockey players to the professionals. Is there something in the water? Or ice cream? Wendel Clark has a theory. Hayley Wickenheiser’s mother too. We explore them all.

Both Clark and Marilyn said that while becoming a professional was amazing, the game had so much more to offer.

For Marilyn, there was joy throughout the journey.

“The sacrifice is always worth it,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they have to be an elite player for it to be worth it. It’s always worth it to see your child play, do what they want and have fun.”


Your burning questions about Saskatchewan, answered weekly. Nothing too big, too small or too weird. What are you wondering? E-mail goodquestionsask@cbc.ca or fill out the form below.

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