CENTENNIAL, Colo. (CBS4) – Things were busy on the ice during the Colorado Thunderbirds Summer Skate at the Family Sports Center in Centennial. Dad Vince Africano watched through the glass.
"Oh, it's totally worth it. My son loves it. When he's not on the ice he just wants to be on the ice. And all his friends are on the ice. He has more friends out here than he does at school," said Africano.
His son was playing up with the Pee Wee group and the competition was tough. Hockey has been a great thing, even with the long drives from Evergreen into Denver, sometimes at very young hours of the morning.
"It's a lot easier getting him out for hockey than it is for school. I'll tell you that right now. Everyone's so excited to see the Avs where they are right now," Africano said.
The Avalanche reaching the Stanley Cup Final is big in the hockey world no matter where it happens and also likely to drive more interest said, Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey.
"In that market in the US, the following year, participation will spike up thanks to the Stanley Cup run," Kelleher said.
Hockey has grown massively in Colorado since before the Avs arrived. USA Hockey, a national organization that oversees hockey programs represents a lot of hockey programs in the state but not all. Five years before the Avalanche arrived from Quebec City 1990-91, there were 3,854 players in Colorado. In 2021-22, that number had risen to 15,547. And that's after a significant drop amid the pandemic. But players are coming back out almost to pre-pandemic levels.
"Obviously we've had more rinks grow not only in Denver, in the mountain towns, down in CO Springs. So there's more access for people to play the game," said Kelleher.
At Rocky Mountain Hockey Schools, executive director Bryan Smith says nine summer camp sessions are full and wait-listed. One parent tried to get around it.
"I had a parent that was on our wait list currently. And they said, 'Hey can you get us off the wait list? I'll pay you double.' And I thought that was pretty funny because it was the first time in my 19 years of coaching hockey that anybody has offered that," said Smith.
Participation has risen in a lot of different categories. Girls hockey has been a big growth area.
"I thought she'd play lacrosse, but she chose hockey. And it's a good fit," said mom Tara Johnson of Commerce City who had driven her daughter all the way to the Edge Ice Arena in Littleton. Her ten-year-old daughter Nikki has now played for six years.
"It is a little far from home but I love all my friends on my team," said Nikki.
Last season was her best yet. "62 points," she volunteered.
Hockey knows it has some issues to resolve. Minority participation is affected by the location of rinks – of which there are too few.
"So we really have to focus at the grassroots level on how we can invite people of color to our game. How can we make it more welcoming, more diverse, but it continues to grow even as some other sports slide. Even parents get the benefit," said Kelleher.
"There's time in the car with your child to go to hockey. It's not just dropping off at the corner field and then taking off. You got to be there. At a younger age, you've got to tie their skates. You've got to help get them dressed. I'll do anything for my son and he loves this sport," said Africano.
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