Last Friday afternoon saw the final day of the World Hockey Summit in Toronto come to a close. Per its website, the Summit was “an event designed to dissect the current state of hockey and collaboratively identify and address key concerns and issues facing the game today.” In other words, it was a four-day “conversation” between the international power brokers in today’s professional and amateur ranks: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, IIHF President René Fasel, Hockey Canada president & CEO Bob Nicholson, Executive Director of USA Hockey Dave Ogrean, and literally hundreds of other ‘who’s who’ faces in the game today.
Much of the conversation revolved around the professional game. Bettman talked about the Kovalchuk situation and the CBA, Fasel stressed the importance of NHL players playing in the Olympics and World Championships, and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly discussed tweaking the NHL All-Star game to make it more interesting. All of these conversations are important to the growth, expansion, and coexistence of the various international bodies, but the Summit touched on several points that are close to my heart as well. Among them were the growth of the youth game, the role parents have in that growth, and how the power brokers for the sport can help drive passion for hockey within their young fans.
As I was stuck at the real job during the Summit, my WHS updates came from the same source where I get most of my breaking news: Twitter. The brilliant minds at Molson had the foresight to allow four hockey fanatics-slash-writers to attend the event and co-tweet under the username @WldHockeySummit. Over the four-day Summit they tweeted 698 times, and I read every single one. Below I’ll paste some of the more pertinent ones and discuss the issue at hand. Want in on this discussion? Post in the comments.
@WldHockeySummit: Kelleher: need to engage parents and win them over so they pick hockey over other sports in which to put their kids in.
@WldHockeySummit: Kelleher: Cost, Commitment and Culture are barriers to hockey in the US.
During Thursday’s session, USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director of Membership Development Pat Kelleher discussed the high financial and cultural boundaries of the game and how we might overcome them. It’s no secret that hockey is an expensive sport. The equipment is pricey, the team fees aren’t cheap, and the travel to facilities can be outrageous. Some have suggested that the key to growth is the creation of new facilities. In certain locations where there isn’t enough icetime to support everyone who wants in on it, that might be true. But in the US, the issue is less about a lack of facilities and more a lack of participation in the sport to begin with. Personally, I feel that the single biggest driver in the growth of the game and the feasibility of new rinks is a passion for the game. In areas with little hockey presence, simply building a new rink will not spark the passion required to sustain it. We’re all hockey people, so we get it. But imagine if your town built a fabulous new badminton facility. If we can imagine that badminton was expensive, would you immediately buy your eight-year-old $1,500 worth of equipment, sign them up for a badminton league that was $2,000 a season, then drive to the facility three times a week for practices and to matches two hours away on the weekends? Doubtful.
When I was growing up, I played a large majority of my hockey in one of two city-owned rinks. Twenty-five years later, there are a half dozen or more local rinks, with just as many new youth programs to choose from. The success of these facilities and programs are driven entirely by need and demand, and this demand will not simply show up, skates in hand, the day you open the doors to a new rink. Rather, the love for the game must be developed first, and on a more grassroots level.
The good news is that there are inexpensive ways to showcase the sport and help seed that passion, and they don’t need to involve the latest equipment or sparkling multi-rink facilities. It starts early, and it starts with volunteerism and grassroots hockey campaigns. Things like pond hockey tournaments, street hockey events, learn-to-play camps. Things like Redline Hockey, Bob DeGemmis’s school (story/website) that not only offers on-ice training, but introduces DC-area kids to the game through an inexpensive street hockey program. Organizations like The Hockey Foundation (website/Twitter), which travels to non-hockey-centric countries and introduces the children there to our amazing sport. Or the Herb Brooks Foundation (website/Twitter), whose goal is to make “hockey fun for kids, letting them learn to love the game the way we did.” If every community had people and organizations like this, who spread the game in a way that doesn’t force a huge initial investment for kids or their parents, you would see the sport grow organically. Parents’ financial decisions are driven by their children’s passions. We will never be able to erase the high costs involved in youth hockey. But if we can ignite a fire and love for the game in the next generation and show their parents how fun, exciting, and important the game can be to their development, they may begin to see the price tag as a hurdle and not an impediment.
@WldHockeySummit: Yzerman making references to successes in growing grass roots hockey in Dallas.
‘Yzerman’, of course, is legendary Detroit Red Wings captain and current Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. Stevie Y spoke during the Summit about the growth of hockey in less traditional markets, and how important professional teams are in helping non-hockey landscapes learn to love the game. Much like Wayne Gretzky introduced Southern California to the game in the early 90’s, the move from Minnesota to Dallas gave the Stars a chance to show the state of Texas what hockey was all about. And in the 17 years since that move, the hockey landscape in Texas has changed dramatically. The AHL currently has three franchises in the Lone Star State (the Houston Aeros, the Texas Stars, and the San Antonio Rampage), and also fields a Junior A Tier II team in the NAHL known as the Texas Tornado.
“The high school hockey programs around the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex have really flourished since the Stars, and then the Tornado, came to town,” said Ellis. “Before the Stars came to Dallas you would have been hard-pressed to find a hockey team in the area. Now, there are about a dozen. These kids started watching hockey when it came to Dallas, or their parents did and wanted to get their kids involved, and it went from there. The parents got the kids involved in learning to skate, and then learning to play hockey. The Dallas Junior Hockey Association started in the early 1970s, but really flourished by having a successful NHL team in the area. DJHA has gone on to become Texas’ largest junior hockey program, and develops players for an “Elite” program, also supported by the Stars, the Dallas Stars Elite. They have three levels of play before the kids are ready to play in a program like the Tornado, or a similar league like the USHL.”
It may not make sense to the layperson why the NHL stresses the importance of franchises in non-traditional hockey markets. But to the throngs of Dallas-area youth lacing them up this winter, it’s made all the difference.
@WldHockeySummit: Great to see teams like the Sens actively engaging in fostering minor hockey. Rehabbing outdoor rinks is the best idea I’ve heard so far.
While the Dallas Stars’ entrance into the Texas landscape has done much to bring the game to the attention of the locals, much of that has to do with how little penetration hockey had in the Texan mindset before their arrival. Contrast that to Ottawa, where babies sleep on Senators crib sheets and kids spend their free time skating on the Rideau. Hockey is as ingrained in Ottawa culture as beaver tails and poutine. So when the Senators want to help grow the game in their backyard, the objective is less about education and more about engagement. Cyril Leeder, President of the Senators and self-described as “bullish on hockey”, certainly does his part with several youth-focused organizational initiatives. The Senators:
- Use their ‘Sens@School’ program to reach out to local students, helping motivate them toward their academic goals.
- Host the ‘Faceoff Fieldtrip’, a free educational Senators practice for students that combines the sport with science (think ‘reaction time of a goalie’ for a math class).
- Are helping to rebuild and rehab some of the city’s 236 city-approved outdoor rinks, then promoting them with appearances by players.
In Canada, where boys’ hockey participation has leveled in recent years, this type of engagement is especially important. Sure, everyone in Canada knows about hockey. But when the Senators are in their schools helping students read or talking to them about academic goals, or when they’re donating time, money, and supplies to help get kids back onto their local outdoor slab, they’re making personal investments in the lives of their neighbors. And this type of engagement can only help the game grow with the next generation.
How can you not love Brendan Shanahan? After 1,500 games played in the NHL, he recently accepted a job in the NHL’s front office. His official title is ‘Vice President of Hockey and Business Development’, which loosely translates to ‘Vice President of Making People Realize That Hockey Is Awesome’. He’s still new to the role, but anyone who heard him talk at the Summit (or follows his tweets, @NHLShanny) knows that this guy has a serious love for the game and a motivation to get more kids involved. It’s guys like him at the top levels of our sport who can really help the game grow.
The Summit lasted four full days, and there are literally hundreds of quotes from it that I could have expanded on here. It’s comforting to know that game’s brightest minds and biggest movers still take the time to think about, talk about, and work towards bringing the game back to its humble beginnings in an effort to make it more appealing to the masses. Obviously they have a vested financial interest. But within each one of them is a bit of the hockey fire, burning just as it did when they were introduced to the sport as a youngster.
Who knows where the game of hockey will go in the future. USA Hockey is reporting a decline in boys’ hockey enrollment, while the girls’ game is trending up here and around the world. The NHL is enjoying some mainstream relevance with the Winter Classic and Olympics, but contractual issues may force another work stoppage in 2012. There’s little any of us can do to affect these worldwide issues, but we can all do our part in our own neighborhoods. If you’re reading this, the best way you can affect change in your area is by spreading the word and allowing easy inroads for others to experience it. Send people to this website. Take them to a game. Organize a street hockey event, or build a backyard rink and invite the neighbors. I grew up infused with hockey blood, so it’s easy for me to be passionate about it. But each of us has a role as ambassadors for the game, and each one of us can do our part to help it continue to grow. None of the issues raised at the Summit have simple, universal answers. But if every league, commissioner, team, parent, and Backyard Hockey reader does their part in spreading the game, we will continue to watch it flourish.
Thank you to everyone on the @WldHockeySummit Twitter squad:
…as well as Ben at Big D Hockey.