Water turns to ice each winter along the 49th parallel, but that doesn’t mean they play the same game of hockey on each side.
A simple glance at the roster sheets for Team USA and Team Canada illustrates the differences. The Americans have 15 players from the college ranks. The Canadians have none.
Down there, they do things differently.
Over the past decade, hockey registrations in the United States have risen each year but one – they slipped, not surprisingly, following the previous NHL lockout – and now stand at 511,378. That is not far from the 580,000 registrants Hockey Canada expects this year, a figure that is at best flat and at worst slipping among males as the numbers have benefited greatly from the rising popularity of women’s hockey.
Do not, however, presume that all is sweetness and light at the Colorado Springs, Colo., headquarters of USA Hockey. The concerns there are largely those shared with Hockey Canada, centred far to the north in Calgary: the rising costs of the game, the reduction of violent hits in the game, and the retention of youngsters who drop out in search of something else to do.
Not long ago, USA Hockey did a membership survey and found that by age 9 it had lost 43 per cent of all the youngsters who had signed up to learn and play the game.
“That opened our eyes,” says Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant director of hockey operations and general manager to the American junior team that will meet Team Canada here on Sunday. “When we saw that number we said, ‘There’s something wrong. Why are so many kids deciding at that age not to play?’ Some are going to say, ‘That’s just not my sport’ and that’s okay, but we think that 43 per cent was too high.
“We said we have to look at more kids being retained in the game. We have a program called two and two. It’s get two new members and retain two. We think it’s a reachable goal.”
All the same, U.S. numbers are still rising compared to Canadian numbers. Johannson says you can look to two reasons: “One, the expansion of the NHL has led to more facilities in other places and this has led to more and more kids playing. If the NHL locates in Dallas, Texas, then all of a sudden there are these other facilities. A kid sees that and says, ‘Mom and Dad, what’s that?’ ‘It’s a hockey rink.’ ‘Well, how about I go try that?’”
This, he says, is the story of U.S. defenceman Seth Jones, who is expected to go first overall in the next NHL entry draft. Jones, the son of retired basketball star Ronald (Popeye) Jones, became entranced with hockey and the Colorado Avalanche when his father was playing for the Denver Nuggets.
“Secondly,” Johannson continues, “our emphasis has been on growing our membership. That means things like ‘Try hockey for free,’ getting kids to the rink and seeing that families don’t have to plop down $3,000 to find out if their son or daughter likes hockey. Let’s get ’em there, and let’s get them trying it as reasonable and affordable as we can, to start.
“But we still have a concern about the costs of the game. [Cost] is definitely a concern of ours. We’ve done some things to try to help that out, but it’s an ongoing challenge.”
Unlike in Canada, most U.S. hockey players come up through a high-school system and the emphasis is far more about moving on to play college hockey than to play in the Canadian junior leagues, though Team USA also has 11 players listed, including Jones, who have decided to go the major-junior route.
Still, Johannson says, the high-school-to-college route is “a fabric of our system. We have a great partner in the NCAA, both on the men’s and the women’s side. Without the NCAA I hate to say where the women’s game would be.
“On the men’s side, it has consistently developed players along good time lines. It has developed not only elite players but also players who just have a nice career and when they walk out they have their degree.”
Team USA head coach Phil Housley spent 21 years in the NHL and is today a high-school hockey coach in Stillwater, Minn. He had already signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Minnesota when he made the almost incomprehensible leap from high school to play for the Buffalo Sabres. He went on to play 1,495 NHL games, including stints in Winnipeg, Calgary and Toronto.
“It’s a great way to develop players,” Housley says. “Let’s see kids stay [in school] a little longer.”
The limited number of games in a high-school year also means that more American players will play more than one sport. USA Hockey argues that this is healthy. It not only develops other talents but it prevents burnout in hockey.
“The goal,” Johannson says, “is not have single-sport athletes but trained athletes all round. We have programs designed so that kids can have other interests as well as hockey. It’s not just all or nothing, because if hockey has a system that is all in, then we have a system in which we lose them. They play a lot of sports and, hopefully, it matriculates to hockey, but it’s not an all or nothing approach at a really young age.
“We’re encouraging more and more athleticism off the ice. We want kids with a much broader experience than just as players. You know, 15 kids shouldn’t have 80 per cent of the ice time. It needs to be spread out so that it will help in their overall development.”
Just as in Canada, player safety has increasingly become a concern with USA Hockey. They have held concussion symposia at the Mayo Clinic and plan another one for 2013. USA Hockey believes that better and stricter officiating is critical to making the game safer.
“Some of the hits that are tolerated in the game right now were not tolerated even when I grew up,” says Johannson, who was drafted by the Hartford Whalers and twice played for the U.S. Olympic team.
“That runs from the NHL down to youth hockey. The big hits have no part in the game, nor does the charging and boarding.”
As for bodychecking, USA Hockey decided for the 2011-12 season to eliminate such contact below the age of 12.
“I still think there is plenty of body contact at 12 and under in our programs,” Johannson says. “Hopefully now they are learning to use their bodies a little bit better and not afraid to play the game. I think it’s a failure in our system if a 12-year-old kid comes back and says he doesn’t want to play hockey because he’s afraid. There’s something wrong.
“There are hits we are trying to get out of the game and the question is how are we going to do it? We get small pockets of ‘Hey, we want to play real hockey,’ and that’s an ongoing matter that we have to do educating on. That’s okay.”
“I think USA hockey is doing a tremendous job,” Housley says. “You look at our roster right now and we’ve got kids from everywhere. You’ve never seen as many players born in southern states. It’s a great success.
“We continue to try to develop and educate, but we’re going in a good direction.”