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As Canada's youth hockey participation shrinks, US is making gains

Team Minnesota wins big in 2024 PWHL Awards
Team Minnesota wins big in 2024 PWHL Awards 01:21

Hockey was not in the cards for the Gershkovich family living in the Phoenix area until they were approached about a program that provided free gear and an eight-week program to try things out.

"That's kind of what roped us in," said Phil Gershkovich, whose sons Eli and Josh each got into it and Josh is still playing in high school. "That gets a lot of people in, and that's a good avenue."

The United States has experienced steady growth in the sport over the past decade while Canada grapples with youth numbers declining significantly over the same period of time. Efforts by USA Hockey, National Hockey League teams and others to bring in more diverse families — and a boom especially in girls participation — have fueled the increase and opened the door for the U.S. to one day overtake its neighbor to the north as the game's preeminent power.

"When I was younger, it was always Canada," said Logan Cooley, a Pittsburgh native and graduate of the U.S. National Team Development Program who just completed his first NHL season with Arizona. "There were even kind of kids from my age growing up moving to Canada and all you heard about was Canada hockey and all the stars they had. But now it's really cool to see that the USA's kind of right up there with them."

USA Hockey reported 387,910 registered youth players in 2022-23 — up from just under 340,000 in 2009-10, and an increase of more than 12%. In its most recent annual report, the organization said over 70,000 girls under age 18 are registered to play, which could soon surpass Canada.

USA Hockey's Kevin Erlenbach cited specifically a 94% increase at age 8 and younger.

"Whether it's female hockey, if it's just underserved communities, even our disabled community, if you can see it, then you can be it and it makes way more impact," said Erlenbach, the organization's assistant executive director of membership.

More gains could be coming in that department after the inaugural season of the Professional Women's Hockey League, though the success of the U.S. national team at recent Olympics also has played a part in increased girls' participation. Canadian star Brianne Jenner said she believes the PWHL is "going to change our sport more than anything ever has, and I think it's also going to change our communities."

The communities getting into hockey are already changing, with industry leaders hoping to tap into folks who never saw the sport as a place for them. Sean Grevy's New York-based 43 Oak Foundation, which provides opportunities for minority and underprivileged kids to learn how to progress through the game, now has 150 families involved.

"My main goal, my main focus, my main priority with this program is to make this sport more inclusive so that other people from other backgrounds that experience that same level of camaraderie that we were also lucky enough to experience as kids ourselves," Grevy said.

Sky Silverstein, the first graduate of the program who now works for 43 Oak, is an example of that progress. Silverstein, who is Black, played Division III hockey at Endicott College and UMass-Dartmouth and wants kids who look up to him to know there is a path for them.

"People are going to tell you, 'It's a white sport,' and that's not what we want it to be — but that's how it is," Silverstein said. "You have to have money, at least a little bit. ... It's just one of those things. You've got to have access to the game."

Free programs and learn-to-play efforts are considered critical. But a big reason for the U.S. growth has to do with changes made at the national level more than a decade ago, including mandates that those at the youngest ages play on one-third of a rink, essentially making room to triple the amount of skaters on the ice at one time and giving them more opportunities to touch the puck, hone their skills and enjoy the experience more.

"It helped with retention a lot, too, just because it was a totally different experience and more cost effective," Erlenbach said.

Costs remain a concern across North America for hockey, not just for equipment but ice time, coaching and more. That's where organizations like 43 Oak come in, and the success that foundation has had with financial help from UBS and the New York Islanders is something being replicated all over the country.

"We should be working together to grow together," Grevy said. "We encourage that. We don't want to be the only ones doing this. This is not a competition for us. In fact, it changes the space of diverse hockey and create an ecosystem where we all work together."

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