Taking a cue from our hockey-mad neighbors to the north, USA Hockey is celebrating the growth of the sport in the United States with a Hockey Weekend Across America tribute that runs coast to coast Friday through Sunday.
Baseball may be recognized as the national pastime, but there's no ignoring the growth and popularity of hockey over the last two decades in the U.S.
USA Hockey has members in all 50 states, and a membership that had fewer than 200,000 in 1990 has blossomed to approximately 600,000 today.
Adult hockey reached the 100,000-member mark for the first time in 2006-07, showing a 36 percent growth in just the past two years.
"The location of these (NHL) teams now, the development of kids at an early age, you're hitting all areas of the United States," Dallas Stars center Mike Modano said. "With that you're increasing your odds and the popularity of the game."
Modano is the ultimate example of American-born success in the game. Born in suburban Detroit, Modano was raised in one of the deep hockey pockets in the U.S., close to other hotbeds including the Boston area, Minnesota and just across the Canadian border, giving him plenty of opportunity to learn the game and compete.
Selected first overall by the Minnesota North Stars in 1988, Modano has remained with the franchise – since transplanted to Dallas – his entire 18-year NHL career. Helping the Stars win the Stanley Cup in 1999, Modano achieved personal fame this season by becoming the all-time leader in goals and points for a native American skater in the NHL.
But Modano doesn't forget where it started, and the support he had from parents and youth coaches along the way.
"They did push you hard, but, again, in the back of their mind they just wanted you to enjoy what you were doing," Modano said. "If you didn't want to do it, you didn't have to. But I certainly enjoyed it, and now I don't tell them – I try to tell them as much as I can what – the time they put in to help me out, what it meant."
The object of Hockey Weekend Across America, a week following the traditional Hockey Day in Canada last Saturday, is to celebrate the sport and all those involved in the game at all levels. And also to expose the game to additional audiences to interest and attract more players, coaches and volunteers.
"The development of USA Hockey is very important to me, and to keep our tradition going in United States hockey," San Jose Sharks forward Jeremy Roenick said. "Being a part of what I believe is probably the resurgence of hockey internationally … I think that helped put America on the map in terms of being able to compete with the Russians, with the Canadians, with the Finns, with the Swedes, and now trying to do that continually into the future."
Second to Modano in goals by an American, Roenick was part of a generation of standout homegrown talent that includes Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Brett Hull, John LeClair, Phil Housley, Joey Mullen, Pat LaFontaine, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Neal Broten.
Many were inspired and sparked by the Miracle on Ice triumph during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Many included in the aforementioned group were part of Team USA's win over Canada during the first World Cup of Hockey tournament in 1996. The U.S. got another boost internationally in 2004 with its first World Junior Championship.
"I still go back to the 1980 Olympics … it really made the hockey world aware of U.S. hockey and its growth and development," said Detroit's Chelios, who at 46 is the second oldest NHL player of all time. "It happened at a rapid pace once the '80 team accomplished what they did."
"A lot of people think it might be dying off with our generation," added Roenick, a Boston native. "But with the success of our U.S. junior team in the last couple years, hopefully that will continue."
Roenick, Modano and the Chicago native Chelios were three of the record 204 U.S.-born players to appear in an NHL game last season, 20 percent of the league.
A number of NHL cities are participating this weekend.
In Anaheim on Saturday, the Ducks will conduct autograph sessions at a number of Southern California rinks. In Detroit, the Red Wings will host a hockey tournament featuring diversity programs from Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Columbus, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. and Alaska.
Minnesota celebrated a week earlier with the second Hockey Day in Minnesota, which included 16-plus hours of hockey programming, five full games from three locations and recognized the sport from pee-wees to the pros.
Different events are set for Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Sunrise, Fla., among the NHL cities, and non-NHL cities including Scottsdale, Ariz., Prior Lake, Minn., Jamestown and Stormville, N.Y., River Falls, Wisc., Brick, N.J., Knoxville, Tenn., Cincinnati, Albuquerque, N.M., Plymouth and Taylor, Mich., Austin, Texas, Belmont, Calif., and Centennial, Colo.
\The idea, too, is to strengthen support for hockey throughout the U.S.
"Some cities, I think, have found it difficult to maintain a great fan base," Modano said of the NHL's southern expansion. "With the Lightning winning a couple years ago, that certainly helped that area of the state and the country. But Nashville, Florida, Phoenix, there's been areas where it could be better. You know, time will tell with that.
"Then there's other cities that are dying to get teams, like Seattle or Las Vegas or Kansas City, which would definitely be great for us who are out west a lot and in the Pacific Division," he added.