By Chris Rauch
Hockey is no longer America's forgotten sport – in fact, it's bigger than ever in the United States. The game 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 tenth anniversary.
USA Hockey's executive director Dave Ogrean doesn't want the week to focus on the Patrick Kanes and Alexander Ovechkins of the game but rather, "The folks at the grassroots level who really shine [a] spotlight on the game." He hopes the festivities will excite young and old who have never been exposed to hockey and make them lifelong fans of the sport. One such event is "National Try Hockey for Free Day" next Saturday which encourages children to explore the game at local ice rinks. (See list of participating rinks below)
Ogrean says there has been an explosion of players registering to play amateur-level hockey at schools and in recreational leagues. "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 percent in that period of time."
One person who has seen that growth firsthand is former Islanders defenseman Ken Morrow. The Michigan native has an impressive resume: he's a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Islanders dynasty of the early '80s, and was a member of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Olympic hockey team. He currently heads the Islanders pro scouting department. Morrow says youth hockey "exploded" in the 1990s and 2000s.
"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."
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." He added that Wayne Gretzky's trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988 made a big "noise" for the sport in the States.
Last year, U.S.-born players made a lot of noise 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.
"It really speaks to where USA hockey is right now," says Morrow. "It's never been in a better place and it's continuing to get better and better. The mindset needs to change from a sport that was regional to a sport that is national now."
American players are also 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.
Women's hockey is gaining in popularity in the States. The National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) was formed in 2015 and consists of four teams: the Buffalo Beauts, the Boston Pride, New York Riveters and the Connecticut Whale, with plans to expand into other markets.
Former New Jersey Devils defenseman Bruce Driver has seen the expansion of women's hockey from the front lines, especially in the Garden State. The Stanley Cup champion has been coaching girl's hockey at the Morristown-Beard School since 2000. He says he has seen "tremendous growth" in New Jersey. "When we started [in 2000] there were six high school teams. We are now up to fourteen schools that have girl's high school hockey."
With nearly 19,000 registered players, New Jersey ranks 8th in the country for participation according to USA Hockey (New York ranks 3rd). Driver credits the Devils move from Colorado in 1982 for the player boom. "We are now seeing more and more players that were born in New Jersey and making it to NCAA hockey, major junior leagues and the NHL as well."
Ogrean credits a USA Hockey program created in Michigan for all the recent success of American players. The National Team Development Program was started 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. Current Devils goaltender Cory Schneider and winger Kyle Palmieri are both alumni of the program.
In New York City, the amateur hockey industry is booming. Joe Byrne, a former player and coach for the FDNY's hockey team, and a current pee wee coach on Long Island, has been involved in New York City's local hockey scene for over 40 years. He says the sport is no longer confined to the city's suburbs: "When I was growing up we had maybe six organizations in the metropolitan area between New York, Long Island and maybe one in Westchester. Now you might have over 40 so it really has taken off."
Morrow says he first noticed hockey taking off in America right after the men's team won gold at Lake Placid in 1980. "Looking back 30 years into the rear view mirror, I think it had a tremendous impact," says Morrow. "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."
Hockey Week Across America kicks off today at noon with live coverage of NBC's Hockey Day in America, featuring four NHL games that will air throughout the day, including a match between the Rangers and Capitals. Short features showcasing hockey at all levels across the country will be shown in between the games. Events throughout the rest of the week will include salutes to players, coaches, referees, local rinks and local players. Friday is wear your favorite hockey jersey to work or school day which Ogrean says has been "extremely popular" over the last nine years.
On Saturday, Feb. 25, several rinks in the Tri-State area will host "National Try Hockey for Free Day" where kids 4-9 can learn the basics of the game.
Brewster Ice Arena, in Brewster 12:00
Everts Rink at the Harvey School in Katonah 1:30
Long Island Sports Hub in Syosset 2:05
Barnabas Health Hockey House in Newark, 11:15
Clary Anderson Arena in Montclair 7:15am
Union Sports Arena in Union 11:00
Pro Skate in Monmouth Junction 3:00
Flemington Ice Arena in Flemington 3:30
Ice Vault Arena in Wayne 2:15
Skylands Ice World in Stockholm 12:50
SoNo Ice House in Norwalk 12:40
for more features.