By Chris Rauch
Hockey is going through a major renaissance in America. Participation in the sport is growing at record rates and is played either professionally or at the amateur level in all 50 states. Yes, even in Hawaii.
This week, the National Hockey League is teaming up with USA Hockey, an 80-year-old hockey development organization, for its first-ever Hockey Week Across America event to celebrate the sport. Previously limited to a weekend, this year’s festivities were expanded to a whole week to celebrate Hockey Weekend’s 10th anniversary.
Hockey is often overlooked as a participation sport in America. One reason being the price tag to play the game. The cost of equipment, team fees, travel and rink time can reach into the thousands. The NHL and USA Hockey hope to alleviate some of that by making this Saturday “National Try Hockey for Free Day” which encourages children to explore the game at local ice rinks. Members of the Vegas Golden Knights will be at the event to encourage kids to enjoy and participate in the sport.
USA Hockey’s executive director Dave Ogrean says there has been an explosion of players registering to play amateur-level hockey at schools and in recreational leagues across the country. “If we go back to 1990, participation has grown from 220,000 players who were registered with us at that time, to now over 540,000 so it’s grown over 150% in that period of time.”
Ogrean credits the NHL itself for exposing more future players to the sport. “I think a big catalyst was the expansion of the National Hockey League into a lot of the non-traditional Sunbelt, warm weather states that took place in the early 90s.”
Las Vegas is the definition of a non-traditional hockey market, a city in the desert famed for its nightlife, casinos, and warm dry weather. But not so much ice hockey. While the city has had minor league teams in the past, none have been able to last.
Ogrean however feels that pro hockey can and will strive in the desert. “We are very excited about having another new market for the National Hockey League because it’s been proven over time where the NHL franchise is planted – hockey will grow around that market,” Ogrean said.
There is plenty of room for growth. Nevada only has just over 1,300 registered players with USA Hockey, but Ogrean says not to worry. “You’ll see some rinks built over time and you’ll see participation in the game increase and we are excited about the prospects in Las Vegas,” Ogrean said.
Currently the city has two indoor facilities for ice hockey. The Golden Knights are building a practice rink for the team that will also have a junior hockey program for teenagers.
One person excited about the prospects in Vegas is former U.S. Olympian, and New York Islanders defenseman Ken Morrow. The Michigan native is a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Islanders dynasty of the early ‘80s, and was a member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team. He also coached the Las Vegas Flash, a professional roller hockey team, during their only season in 1993-94. Today, he heads the Islanders pro scouting department.
“I remember when San Jose came in, and Nashville [and other teams] there were doubts from people,” says Morrow. “I think that with the growth of hockey and where we see hockey being played now the mindset needs to change from a sport that was regional to a sport that is national now.”
Morrow adds that more American players have been coming out of the so called non-traditional markets.
“I notice it when I’m out scouting and I’m watching the USHL, which is the top junior league here in the United States, and the US colleges. You look down the rosters and you see [more] kids from nontraditional states like California, Florida, Texas, New York, Arizona than you do from the traditional areas [like] Minnesota, Michigan [and] New England,” Morrow said.
Morrow believes winning gold at Lake Placid in 1980 had a “tremendous impact” on the sport in the U.S. “It got people involved in hockey. I can’t tell you how many thousands of people that have come up to me over the years and told me that 1980 was the reason that they got [into] playing hockey or became a fan of hockey. It’s always humbling to hear something like that,” Morrow said.
Last year, U.S.-born players made a big splash in the NHL. Approximately a quarter of all current NHL players were born in the U.S. – a nine percent increase since 2000, according to USA Hockey. The 2016 draft saw twelve American players selected in the first round – a new record. Among those was top pick Auston Matthews of Arizona, who is now playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ogrean says having a pro hockey team in Matthews’ home state had a major influence on the 19 year old center: “He saw hockey. He fell in love with hockey. And, in an unlikely place like Phoenix, he becomes the number one player chosen overall.”
Currently Las Vegas has one NHL representative: Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker. Born in California, Zucker grew up in Vegas and got his first taste of the sport by playing roller hockey, and skating at the SoBe Ice Arena. He is the first player from Vegas to skate in the NHL.
American players have recently been exceeding in international competitions. In January of this year, the U.S. Men’s team took home the gold in the World Junior Championships – making it their third since 2010. The U.S. Women’s team has won six gold medals in the last ten years at the Women’s World Championship. The Women’s team also took home the Olympic silver medal in both 2010 and 2014. The men won the silver medal in 2010.
Ogrean credits a USA Hockey program created in Michigan for all the recent success of American players. The National Team Development Program was started over 20 years ago to train and develop young players to compete at professional levels. “We have 44 of the country’s best players who are 16 and 17 years old,” says Ogrean. “They play a rigorous schedule that includes several international competitions [and games] against NCAA Division One colleges – they are playing against a lot of older players.” Many of these teen athletes eventually make it to the NHL. Jason Zucker was one of them.
Other events for Hockey Week Across America will include salutes to players, coaches, referees, local rinks and local players. Friday is wear your hockey jersey to work or school day, so go ahead and show off your brand spanking new Golden Knights gear!
On Saturday, the Las Vegas Ice Center on 9295 W. Flamingo Road is teaming up with the Golden Knights to host “National Try Hockey for Free Day” where kids 4-9 can learn the basics of the game. Two sessions will be held from 3:30 to 4:40, and 4:45 to 5:45. Representatives from the team will be on hand giving out t-shirts and sticks to the kids. Golden Knights Vice President of Communications Eric Tosi says the team is “very excited” to be a part of the event.
Anyone looking to seek more information can call the rink at 702-320-7777 or e-mail email@example.com