The Whyte Stuff: So many signs that hockey is growing in Arizona, U.S.
As a kid growing up in Northern Ontario, hockey was everything.
Pretty much everyone played, whether it be organized hockey in the arenas, or at very least on the frozen rinks or streets. Although it is easy to say that’s all we knew, we did play other games and competed in such sports as baseball, football, soccer and lacrosse.
Regardless, hockey was always Canada’s game.
I recently read an article by Alex Silverman where he elaborates on the rapid growth of ice hockey in the United States. He mentions that the sport has grown in numbers of over a half million new players since 1999.
In Arizona, hockey has grown over 120 percent.
Silverman also mentions how Canadians make up just over 48 percent of the National Hockey League this season, which is the first time that it has been less than half. However, the U.S. crop has grown to over 23 percent of all NHL players, which is a new high.
These statistics are pretty amazing, but there are good reasons as to why this trend is moving in the direction where the United States will soon be a dominant player in the National Hockey League. This includes the NHL expanding in non-traditional markets, retiring players getting involved in youth hockey, and a joint force of the NHL, NHLPA and USA Hockey growing the sport at the grassroots level.
Population alone plays a big role in the overall growth of hockey in the U.S. However, it is not naturally the sport that most would gravitate to living here, or in other cities not noted for the sport. The fact that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s initiative in the 1990s to bring the NHL to numerous non-traditional markets plays a key role in the ever-expanding popularity of ice hockey. Areas of the United States where ice hockey has been completely foreign to the overall culture has now become a household item. The game and its players have slowly infiltrated cities where football, baseball or soccer have always been prominent.
This, in turn, draws retiring players to plant roots in the city they played for, and ultimately getting involved at the youth level. Speaking from experience, many of the players that finish their career off in a particular city end up staying there and take up coaching youth hockey. The benefits that players gain from being instructed by former NHLers is invaluable. The experiences that these former players can draw from and pay it forward are priceless.
The NHL and NHLPA have recently invested in working with USA Hockey to grow hockey at the grassroots level. This is a very impactful venture that will hopefully pay huge dividends for the NHL in not only building a stronger hockey community, but also breed a new generation of fans. The owners of NHL franchises have all come together to work with the NHLPA in developing a Learn to Skate/Learn to Play program that will strive to grow hockey at the youth level in hopes of earning lifelong participants. While still in its infancy stage, the goal is to provide all of the necessary gear, ice time and instruction to these young up and coming athletes, teaching them how to skate, play the game and hopefully, fall in love with the sport.
While hockey still is, and will probably be for as long as I am around, the No. 1 sport in Canada, the United States has definitely taken numerous strides in growing the game across the country. Seeing an Auston Matthews selected first overall in last year’s NHL Draft has blazed the trail for many more future NHL stars coming from unexpected hockey markets like Arizona.
With key players such as USA Hockey, the NHLPA and the NHL involved, it is only a matter of time before hockey’s well-deserved accolades are praised across all of the United States.
Sean Whyte is the director of hockey operations and coach-in-chief at DYHA.