Puck Daddy - NHL

Conventional wisdom has always been that one of the most inherent obstacles in creating new hockey fans in the U.S. is familiarity with the game.

Footballs are thrown around every neighborhood in America. Basketball backboards are rise above every playground. Although its participatory numbers are changing, baseball is still a rite of passage for millions of young fans.

(Yes, we understand the soccer conundrum in the "if they play it, they'll watch it" theory. But there's a difference between running around aimlessly between orange pylons while picking flowers on a grassy field, and actually playing a proper game of footie.)

In our so-called "non-traditional" hockey markets in the U.S., love of puck isn't always found with two blades gliding on the ice. It can be cultivated in front of a video game console in a rec room, for example, or with a pair of rollerblades on the asphalt.

So this news from CNBC's Darren Rovell, via the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association's annual report on Sports Participation in America, is a bit of a downer:

"The worst decline in participation in team sports in 2008 was roller hockey, down 15.4 percent."

Yikes. The optimist in us hopes they all just converted to ice hockey; the realist tells us that it's an offshoot of hockey that might be in recession, which isn't positive news for the NHL in the U.S.

In taking a look at the report ourselves, there are some reasons to hope that hockey's growing, along with some gloomier news.

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) is a DC-based organization that is "a trade association of leading industry sports and fitness brands, enhances industry vitality and fosters sports and fitness participation through research, thought leadership, product promotion and public policy." Which is another way of saying they put pressure on lawmakers to respect the necessity of physical education in public schools and the sanctity of public park spaces.

Its massive annual report for 2009 - the 22nd edition -- covers every facet of sports and fitness activity in America: Low impact vs. high impact aerobics; BMX vs. mountain biking; ultimate Frisbee vs. paintball. It's all broken down into year-to-year numbers and demographics. Did you know 12 percent of pilates participants are men? We sure didn't.

This includes participation in team sports for Americans ages six and older. Here's a snapshot from the report, with the numbers in millions (larger image, and all images courtesy SGMA):

As you can see, ice hockey's on the rise ... but it's not back up to the levels it reached earlier this decade. That should be fodder for those who believe the lockout was more devastating than the NHL will ever let on, even if the economics of the sport are likely the biggest drag on the numbers.

But those roller hockey numbers are devastating. Besides the decline from 2007 to 2008, the overall drop of 59.8 percent during the decade is the largest for any activity.

We asked VJ Mayor, business operations for SGMA, whether the roller hockey change was more due to the populace souring on rollerblading or on hockey. He said it's a little of both, but mentioned that the decline of rollerblading isn't exclusive to hockey. In fact, use of the classic four-wheel skates has grown by 1.4 percent over eight years, while rollerblades are at a minus-56.2 percent. We blame Sonic drive-up servers.

Here are the demographic breakdowns for roller skating:

For ice hockey, the demographics are about what you'd expect when it comes to gender and economics:

But check out what changes when you're talking about roller hockey:

The median household income drops. The average age drops. The number of women participating in the sport jumps. Statistically, it's a more inclusive way to introduce the game. 

It's also way to understand the basics of the game and to appreciate the minutia of the sport. As the Virginia Pilot pointed out recently in an interview with local Junior B coach Tom Winkler, it's perhaps most importantly a way to cultivate new talent:

[The hockey world] finds players in all sorts of non-traditional hockey towns, Winkler says. Upper levels of junior hockey are being infiltrated by kids from Southern California, Arizona, Florida and Texas - and now Virginia - many of whom, Winkler notes, cut their teeth on roller hockey. "A lot of times, the kids' skill-sets are pretty good; they can skate, they can handle the puck, they can shoot," says Winkler of his local talent.

In the past, roller hockey has been trumpeted by the NHL as a way to diversify its fan base and talent pool. As the article above hinted, we're already seeing players like Nashville Predators prospect Jonathon Blum(notes) getting drafted in the first round after learning the game on asphalt.

It's cheaper than ice hockey, and you don't have to wait for an available sheet to play it. As someone who played more street hockey than ice hockey growing up, I believe it's a basic and essential way to get otherwise apathetic parties interested in the sport. And not just because they played it on top of the Quick Stop in "Clerks."

So whether it's street hockey, deck hockey, roller hockey or ice hockey, let's just hope more folks keep playing hockey in the U.S.

(Lead image from Broken Mystic.)

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