NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A deep playoff run by an NHL Sun Belt team is often greeted by jokes about TV ratings, frantic executives, and self-harm. Example: “If Nashville keeps advancing, Gary Bettman will put his head in an oven.”
That’s sort of funny, but consider Cameron Fowler, Nashville native, age 4. He has season tickets to the Predators with his dad, Bill. That’s not extraordinary. What is notable is that Cameron’s dad didn’t care a lick about hockey until the team arrived in the late ’90s. Now it’s his favorite sport, ahead of baseball, and Cameron’s starting to skate.
“I was not a hockey fan,” said Bill, a 40-year-old tax accountant. “He would not be a hockey fan either. But he’s been coming to games since he was born.”
Cameron is not alone. According to USA Hockey, the youth participation rate in Nashville has nearly tripled since 1996, from a paltry membership of 402 to 1,146 last year. In Phoenix, a city where ice is associated mostly with cold drinks on 100-degree days, participation numbers are similar over the same period – up to 1,342 under-18 members for last year.
“When the NHL expanded into ‘nontraditional’ U.S. markets, participation and access to participation grew,” said Bill Kelleher of USA Hockey. Simple but true: rinks were built, people came.
And it’s not just tots. Nate Ewell, Interim Executive Director of College Hockey Inc., says Arizona produced 15 Division I men's players last year. That’s the same number as New Hampshire. And while Tennessee produced only two, it’s clear many of the youths picking up the sport are feeding through the entire development system. Chris Peters, who runs The United States of Hockey website, reports membership eclipsed half a million for the first time in 2010-11. The largest gains came in the age 6-and-under category and the overall skill level is improving, too.
"The skill level of the youth hockey player in Arizona has improved tremendously in the last 10 years," said Mike De Angelis, the director of travel hockey for the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes. “Not only has the number of players participating in the state been steadily climbing, but players are excelling because of new opportunities for competition and exposure nationally."
No question, pro hockey in new frontiers is a mixed bag. Not even the Coyotes players themselves know where they’ll be playing next season. The Atlanta Thrashers left for Winnipeg last year. Attendance in Southern cities with mediocre NHL teams is usually worse than the league average. But the state with the biggest increase in youth participation according to USA Hockey figures in 2010-11 was actually a Tennessee border state: Arkansas. Participation rates jumped 28 percent, to 277, in one year. No, those aren’t overwhelming numbers, but remember hockey is trying to grow at the grassroots level in places where there hadn’t been much grass. Or, in this case, ice.
So what would happen if Nashville or Phoenix made the Stanley Cup final – besides the outpouring of jokes about NHL commissioner Bettman running himself over with a Zamboni? Peters writes that youth participation in Dallas has almost doubled since the Stars beat the Sabres in ’99. And USA Hockey membership grew almost 20 percent in North Carolina in one year after the ’Canes won in ’06.
With every victory and every home date, including Friday’s in Nashville, more people like Bill Fowler get exposed to hockey – even if it’s on a billboard or at a bar. And even though they may not always show up at pro rinks the way the NHL would like, they seem to keep showing up at practice rinks.
“It’s amazing to see the transformation,” said Fowler, watching his son play street hockey before a Predators playoff game against Phoenix. “It’s great to see it grow over the years. You see more youth jerseys, too.”
That’s where it matters most, really. Because just like baseball, hockey is a sport passed down by dads and granddads. In the Sun Belt cities, far fewer men grew up with hockey. But now that’s changing – even as the jokes about TV ratings fly.
“You get hooked,” Fowler said. “We play hockey in the house every day. It’s great. Though it definitely makes marks on the floors.”
And, apparently, on more than a few new hearts.
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