How NHL is growing hockey in America at grassroots level

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When it comes to the NHL, “growing the game” is a bit of a nebulous term. Does it mean growing more NHL fans, a.k.a. future customers? Does it mean growing more American players who could one day play in the NHL? Maybe a little bit of both?

Alex Silverman of SportsBusiness Daily (behind paywall) did a deep dive into Americans and hockey.

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While the premise that U.S.-born player could one day overtake Canadians in the NHL is a bit pie-in-the-sky, it’s a piece that shows us how the NHL is dedicating funds to grow hockey at a grassroots level.

From SBD:

The efforts of NHL teams, particularly those in newer markets, to grow the game gained steam with the NHL’s most recent collective-bargaining agreement, which included the creation of the Industry Growth Fund. That money — up to $60 million per year — is earmarked for leaguewide and club-specific projects aimed at long-term revenue generation. The primary focus of IGF-funded projects thus far has been growing the game at the youth level.

Jay Feaster, Tampa Bay Lightning executive director of community hockey development who’s also a two-time NHL general manager, called it “a game-changer,” noting that the bulk of the team’s multifaceted Build the Thunder campaign to increase local participation is funded by the IGF. The team plans to distribute 100,000 team-branded street hockey sticks and balls, offer 10,000 hours of hockey training and grow the number of registered USA Hockey players in the region by 1,000 over a five-year period that began last season.

“Once you get them playing, they’re going to continue to play,” Feaster said. “That’s the kind of critical mass that you need in order to ever reach that point where you have more or the same number of U.S.-born kids playing in the NHL as you do Canadians.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that 21 clubs have applied for IGF funds, and all of them have received some amount of funding. The fund has allocated $40 million for club initiatives over five years, including $15 million for rink development, $10 million for ball/street hockey and $5 million for youth hockey diversity and inclusion programs.

Wonder who those nine teams are that haven’t applied for the IGF money are?

Rink development is the key. There are currently 1,800 indoor ice rinks and 1,000 outdoor rinks in the U.S., according to the International Ice Hockey Federation. We’ve seen first hand how a few new sheets can change how the hockey community grows – look no further than the Washington Capitals’ Kettler Iceplex project in Virginia, which was a boon to youth and prep hockey.

The numbers in many “non-traditional” markets in the U.S. are growing for hockey: Florida has gone from 5,606 players in 1998-99 to 13,276 in 2015-16; Texas went from just under 6,000 in 1998-99 to 13,385 in 2015-16. There’s always been a “if you build it, they will come” aspect to local ice sheet construction.

There opportunity is there for those numbers to continue to trend up, if the investment continues to be made by the NHL and other entities. Of course, at some point, it stops being about the money and the facilities and becomes the simple questions that have determined participation in hockey for decades in the U.S.: The attraction to the sport; the number of peers that participate in it; and whether or not, in this concussion awareness era, hockey is safe enough for mom and/or dad to drop the coin necessary to play it.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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