In Canada we're quick to claim hockey as our own, but there is a hockey culture in other places. In some of them it sounds a lot like the Canadian hockey myth: frozen ponds and endless, rosy-cheeked games of shinny. But in other parts of the United States -- where they were celebrating Hockey Day in America even as Canadians were tuning into the Heritage Classic - hockey means palm trees and a cool escape from hot weather.
It's not hard to find a chorus of Canadian fan voices who wish the NHL's detour into Florida and California and Texas and North Carolina and Arizona and Georgia had never happened. There are perfectly good markets in Winnipeg and Quebec City waiting for teams with fans who grew up skating on outdoor rinks.
But what if hockey in the sunbelt is actually - working?
As this article by the New York Times Jeff Z. Klein points out; there are several measures to suggest that the NHL's expansion south has done exaclty what it's proponents hoped it might: grow the game outside the traditional strongholds of the New England states and those along the Canadian border -- Michigan and Minnesota in particular: For some American hockey players at the highest level, memories of childhood are filled with idyllic days on frozen ponds and outdoor rinks. But for a growing number, childhood memories are framed by palm trees, warm weather and rooting for N.H.L. teams that many Northerners disdain as a failed Sun Belt experiment. Those memories reflect the evolving nature of the game in the United States on the eve of Hockey Weekend Across America, a celebration of one of the nation's fastest-growing sports."Some of my fondest memories are from when I was 6, in the car with the family and lugging our bags to Pasadena Ice Skating Center," said Angela Ruggiero, 31, a four-time Olympian. Ruggiero also remembered "being a fan, watching the L.A. Kings' run in '92-'93, almost winning the Stanley Cup" - proof that the 1988 arrival of Wayne Gretzky in Southern California really did give rise to a warm-weather generation of players.
I encourage you to read the entire article, but there are some interesting facts as well:
- Participation throughout the United States has increased from 195,000 male and female players of all ages registered with USA Hockey in 1990-91 to 475,000 in 2009-10. Earlier this year, it registered its 100,000th player at the 8-and-younger level.
- On opening night of the N.H.L. this year, and for the first time in league history, more than 20 percent of league rosters were composed of American players, representing 25 states.
- According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, ice hockey is the second-fastest-growing sport in the country since 2008, behind fast-pitch softball.
- In the Southeast, there were 4,462 registered players in 1990-91; in 2009-10, there were 39,807. There was similar growth in the Pacific and Rocky Mountain regions.
Some of this growth in non-traditional markets has begun to be reflected in the game's elite levels: Last summer, Jason Zucker of Las Vegas became the first Nevadan taken in the N.H.L. draft. He played for the United States at the world junior championships last month, alongside Mitch Callahan of Whittier, Calif., and Emerson Etem of Long Beach, Calif., who grew up playing roller hockey at the Y.M.C.A. In 1998-99, there were no Alaskans playing in the N.H.L, but now Brandon Dubinsky of the Rangers is one of about a dozen current or former players from the state.
Quick, someone owes Gary Bettman an apology!