Is hockey becoming America’s game?

More kids, more rinks, and now, more popular than basketball

The United States of hockey

Photograph by Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images

It was an unlikely cradle for a hockey prodigy. A sun-baked expanse of concrete, equipped with a makeshift set of boards—the haven of a passionate cadre of in-line skaters who in the mid-1990s had adapted the game of Wayne Gretzky to the climate of southern California. From the moment three-year-old Emerson Etem wobbled onto the roller-hockey surface at the Los Altos YMCA, it was clear he’d found his métier. “He just had this ability on wheels,” recalls his mother Patricia, a former Olympic rower. “It was a lot of fun to watch. But more than anything, I was intrigued.”

At six, Etem made the transition to ice, joining a house league in his hometown of Long Beach, then advancing through select teams run by the L.A. Hockey Club, an elite program based in Orange County. A stint at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the fabled Minnesota prep school where Sidney Crosby played, led to an invitation to join the Medicine Hat Tigers of Canada’s Western Hockey League, where the 19-year-old has established his bona fides as a blue-chip NHL prospect. Last week, he became the first WHL player in 11 years to score 51 goals in 50 games. Next fall, he’ll attend the training camp of the Anaheim Ducks, who took him in the first round of last year’s NHL entry draft.

Canadians may dismiss Etem as an anomaly—the SoCal equivalent of, say, a gifted Slovenian discovered by a diligent scout. But if the growing numbers of young Americans taking a shine to hockey are any guide, we’ll soon see more like him. U.S.A. Hockey, the sport’s governing body south of the border, is on track for its fourth straight year of record enrolment, having cracked the half-million player mark for the first time in 2010-11. The U.S. has yet to catch Canada—we had 572,000 players last year of all ages, male and female. But its trend lines are better. Since the early 1990s, when the NHL embarked on its aggressive expansion into the U.S., the number of Americans playing the game has ballooned by 257 per cent. Canada’s registration levels have remained comparatively flat, averaging 550,000 over the last decade.

Surprisingly, much of the upsurge has occurred in sunbelt regions whose mere mention still induces snickers from the sport’s northern purists. By the end of last year, fully 42,988 players had registered in U.S.A. Hockey’s southeast region, encompassing former hockey wastelands like Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. That’s a near-tenfold increase from the number playing 20 years ago, and has been accompanied by similar growth in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific regions.

It has also taken place within the most desirable demographic from the point of view of organizers. Last season, the national governing body enrolled its 100,000th player below the age of eight. A further 11,000 have signed up so far this year, says Pat Kelleher, U.S.A. Hockey’s assistant executive director in charge of membership development, suggesting enthusiasm for the sport among young parents.

How, then, does a country go about selling the game to kids living amid palm trees or mesas? First, says Kelleher, by getting them on skates. This Saturday, 200 arenas across the U.S. will hold “Try Hockey for Free” days, when children are provided gear and on-ice instruction for the purpose of acquainting them with the game. The sessions are part of U.S.A. Hockey’s annual Hockey Weekend in America, which offers local hockey associations the chance to dispel myths that have travelled with the sport from its northern headwaters. “We get to talk to parents and tell them that their kids won’t be playing at 5 a.m. six days a week, that they won’t lose their teeth,” says Kelleher. “For us to grow, we have to make this as customer-friendly as possible.”

It also requires aggressive marketing, and for that the NHL’s sunbelt franchises can take the lion’s share of credit—hard as that may be for some Canadians to accept. Kelleher, for one, traces part of the upturn in registrations to a boom in arena construction not long after the NHL established franchises in the South. “Florida went from having four sheets of ice to having 26,” he notes. “There was simply more capacity for us to grow.” Craig Ludwig, a retired NHL defenceman, recalls arriving in east Texas in 1993, the year the Minnesota North Stars transferred to Dallas, to find his sport had zero footprint in his new hometown. “I remember sitting in the stands at an exhibition game that first season,” says Ludwig, who grew up in hockey-savvy Wisconsin, “and hearing a couple of cowboys ask why they didn’t put three points on the scoreboard when someone got a goal. You know: like a field goal in football. That’s how bad it was.”

So the Stars set about dispatching players like Ludwig to public appearances throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where they explained the niceties of offside, icing and too many men on the ice. Then, fatefully, the team bought the city’s only local rink out of bankruptcy to use as a practice facility. “We kind of stumbled into the business,” explains Stars president Jim Lites, who oversaw the club’s move into amateur hockey. “But there was a lot of demand to play hockey from transplanted northerners, and after the Stars gained popularity, enrolment went through the roof.”

Today, three “StarCenter” ice complexes operate in and around Dallas, providing venues to more than 5,000 local players. Lites owns two of them, while Ludwig, who played six seasons in the city before retiring in 1999, is assistant coach of an elite midget club in another. Meantime, the Stars’ experience has become a template for growing the game in other southern locales. Owners of the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings all have stakes in local arena complexes, while the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes sponsor their own youth hockey programs.

Such success, it goes without saying, is bound to tweak Canadian insecurity—notwithstanding our recent Olympic triumphs, or per capita participation levels in hockey that dwarf America’s. We’re right to worry. Much as we love the game, Canada’s low birth rate threatens to cut the pool of young people who might play it by nearly five per cent over the next decade, according to a report prepared last year for Hockey Canada and the country’s NHL teams. Worse, new Canadians are a lot less likely to sign up for hockey than native-born ones. If current trends hold, the number of young people playing hockey will fall by more than 27 per cent over the next 10 years.

Officials with Hockey Canada, the sport’s national governing body, acknowledge that the demographic time bomb caught them off guard. For more than a decade, they say, enrolment in the country’s 13 regional branches has been propped up by the influx of girls, women and adult men signing up for rec leagues. But female participation has levelled off since 2008, notes Glen McCurdie, the organization’s vice-president of membership services, while the greying of Canada’s player pool is no sign of the game’s future health.

As a result, McCurdie and his staff are taking a hard look at U.S.A. Hockey’s recruiting stratagems, including a modified version of the Try Hockey for Free day in immigrant-heavy cities. Next year, the organization plans to roll out a Hockey Canada membership card, which will confer discounts on everything from shin pads to hotel rooms for travelling teams. “For a long time, we just opened the doors and kids across the country flocked to register,” McCurdie says. “We recognize now that we need to get into the recruitment game. For us that’s a big change.”

Canada does, however, enjoy one advantage the U.S. does not: namely, a cultural attachment to the sport that will see it through demographic headwinds. In an annual poll of sports followers in the U.S., only five per cent of respondents named hockey last month as their favourite game, a share that has remained static over the past seven years. The sport appeared to eclipse pro basketball in this year’s poll, run by Harris Interactive, but only because hoops has plunged in popularity from its highs of 13 per cent in the late 1990s. Hockey still lags behind football (36 per cent), baseball (13) and auto racing (8).

Still, even incremental gains are good news for a sport Americans once regarded as an oddity, while every successful run by a U.S. NHL franchise enhances the game’s profile. Last week, the Washington Post gave rare front-page coverage to the Capitals, crediting the D.C. area’s only winning pro sports team for an explosion in youth hockey in Maryland and Virginia. “It’s the Ovi factor,” one minor-league coach told the paper, in reference to Alex Ovechkin, the team’s dynamic and theatrical Russian captain. “It’s got kids excited about hockey and the Caps.” In Massachusetts, where the Boston Bruins are preparing to defend last year’s Stanley Cup title, TV viewership of NHL games has soared, while the ratings for NHL broadcasts on NBC’s main network have inched up nine per cent over last year’s. So far this season, the league has averaged 1.36 million per game.

Will America eventually unseat Canada as hockey’s leading power? The logic of numbers would suggest so. With 10 times the population, and a birth rate that exceeds replacement level, the U.S. is likely to surpass this country in total hockey registrations within the next decade. Fully 207 of the 952 players who played in the NHL last season hail from the United States. And few in American hockey circles have forgotten how close their national men’s team came to spoiling Canada’s gold-medal victory at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Yet the idea of leapfrogging Canada is secondary to players like Emerson Etem, who has twice represented his country at the world junior championships. In his mind, hockey acumen now transcends international boundaries, which is why he didn’t hesitate when he was invited to play in Medicine Hat. “The game in California is based on skill development, stickhandling and speed,” he points out. “Here, it’s more defensive-minded and rugged, but anywhere you play it’s a battle every night.”

Etem’s 50-plus goals in junior hockey won’t mean much, of course, when he lines up against NHL competition at the Ducks’ training camp. Nor will his status as a homeboy, who took his first strides on wheels just a stone’s throw from Anaheim’s home arena. But as hockey’s renaissance in the home of the brave proceeds apace, Etem can be certain of one thing: he won’t be judged by the country on his passport.

Is hockey becoming America’s game?

  1. The byline is misleading. The poll (Harris Interactive) shows that hockey and basketball are tied for ”favourite sport,” not that hockey is more popular (or “apparently” more popular, as the text describes) than basketball. The loss of interest in basketball seems to have benefited football, not hockey. Interest in hockey seems (based on the Harris numbers) to be static.

    There’s also something to be said about the recent NBA lockout. This would certainly hurt the NBA’s ratings and interest in the sport. It would be more accurate to say, judging by the Harris numbers, that “Basketball is becoming as unpopular as hockey” rather than “hockey is becoming more popular than basketball.”

  2. And then there is the new movie…called ‘Goon’.

    • A Canadian movie.

      • And an image we don’t need.

        • Hahaha…”Goon” is made by the guys who also made “Fubar”…it is obviously a comedy.  Kevin Smith (a non-Canadian) is making another ‘funny’ hockey movie called “Hit Me”.  Face it, Emily, Canadians excell at comedy and despite your denials, they like hockey too.  I think the only time our home-town theatre sold-out was for the hockey movie “Slap Shot”, that classy flick featuring Paul Newman on skates.  Didn’t he get an Oscar nod for that one?

          • What does all that have to do with a crappy image for Canada?

          • How can a funny movie create a crappy image for Canada when the Americans are making funny movies about the same thing?

          • @Healthcare Insider

            If you want you and yours to be called hockey goons, that’s up to you

  3. The NHL game is controlled in the U.S. and remains the National Hockey League only in name. The decisions are made south of the border. Time to take up curling.

  4. If you compare the costs of basketball & hockey, I am sure there are still alot of underprivileged kids in the southern states playing b-ball.  It costs a fortune for ice time here, not mention the cost of equipment and skates.  For basketball or tennis all you need are sneakers and a ball & racquet.  The free courts are all over and the weather is conducive to outside play.  The writer didn’t make mention of baseball either.  That is another relatively cheap sport that is big in the US.

  5. The unidentified team in this pic is the Houston Wild AA team. . . that swept the Quarter Finals last weekend in Dallas.  Semi Finals are this coming weekend, again in Dallas.  (My grandson, #21, is on this team.)

  6. Once again, America wins.. Now if we can just get rid of Odumbo….

  7.  

    We live in Minnesota, and despite some really cool Canadians
    I met in Florida recently saying that we should be Canada’s 11th
    Province, we love being in America. Sometimes I wish that I lived in Canada
    because America’s coverage and attitude sucks when it comes to hockey (luckily
    people in Minnesota love it so if you avoid the National Media (ESPN talks WAY
    too much about the NBA), webstream TSN whenever possible and get your news
    locally, you’re ok). In the U.S. the NFL is KING, and it isn’t even close… so
    for a guy with his favorite team tattooed on his arm, a guy who’s been to 2
    High School, 1 pro, 1 college and 2 junior hockey games THIS WEEK, the lack of
    coverage can be annoying.

     

    HOWEVER… regardless of where hockey is being played,
    who is playing it and what station is talking about it, I’m just happy that my
    6 year old son can strap on his skates and play whenever he wants. My son gets
    it. Because with hockey, it doesn’t matter whether your thermometer reads in
    Fahrenheit or Celsius… on the rink it’s about so much more… it’s the smell of
    fresh ice and the feeling of cold air rushing through your nostrils, the sound
    of the skates scraping against the ice, the pops of the pucks slapping against
    the boards. It’s skating in the dark and shooting on a trashcan underneath the
    night sky, staying out until your Mom tells you to come home and sneaking out
    after she goes back asleep. It’s getting up WAY too early and traveling to a
    game, taping your stick PERFECTLY and lacing your skates just right. Hockey is
    a sport of passion, it driven by emotion and feeling, and to me, the more
    arenas (pun intended) there are for Dads and Moms to get their kids skating,
    the better it is for everyone.

  8. After seeing that headline I didn’t even bother to read the article. Trying to say hockey is more popular than basketball in the USA is a ridiculous argument. 2013 NBA Finals had 4times more viewers than 2013 Stanley Cup Finals. @NBA has 7 times more followers than @NHL. I could go on and on.

  9. As a proud Canadian, seeing the USA World Junior championship win as well as the American womens team winning gold should wake Canadians up that they are taking over the sport that was once solely ours. Add all those American based Stanley Cups they’ve won for two decades, as well as that recent poll which has Over 80% of Canadian parents saying they Don’t want their kids participating in hockey, and it seems clear to us that Canadian dominance in the Sport is long ancient history.

    • Well, American based NHL teams doesn’t mean they have American players, my Wild still have 80% Canadian-born players on the team, the rest are Minnesotan or Finnish, America still has a ways to go before the great game becomes a thing here.

  10. I have a theory. I think one of the biggest reasons hockey is becoming more popular in the US is due to a major racial divide that is going on in sports right now in the US. Football and basketball being dominated by African-Americans and baseball by foreigners. All the youngest, most talented players in football (including quarterbacks) are African-American these days. The Mannings are the last of a generation. Basketball, which of course has almost always been dominated by the African American community (until a short Canadian white kid came out of nowhere), and baseball which is now dominated by foreigners. As far as American team sports are concerned, suffice it to say, the Caucasian-American demographic is not doing very well. So they’ve looked somewhere else. This is why you see a lot of states further south interested in the game. When they turn on the tv they don’t see their demographic represented anymore in the sports they used to love. This Emerson Etem is the odd exception. There are a few AA’s that trickle in every year and the upsurge in popularity there is curious, maybe it is a status symbol in the AA community to play hockey or something, and they’re almost always from California too which is even more interesting, but as far as Caucasian-Americans becoming more interested in the sport, the explanation is pretty clear.

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