Is hockey becoming America’s game?

More kids, more rinks, and now, more popular than basketball
FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 11: The Houston, TX, based Houston Wild hockey team is spoken to by their coach at the Stars Center in Frisco, TX, on Saturday, February 11, 2012.
The United States of hockey
Photograph by Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images

It was an unlikely cradle for a hockey prodigy. A sun-baked expanse of concrete, equipped with a makeshift set of boards—the haven of a passionate cadre of in-line skaters who in the mid-1990s had adapted the game of Wayne Gretzky to the climate of southern California. From the moment three-year-old Emerson Etem wobbled onto the roller-hockey surface at the Los Altos YMCA, it was clear he’d found his métier. “He just had this ability on wheels,” recalls his mother Patricia, a former Olympic rower. “It was a lot of fun to watch. But more than anything, I was intrigued.”

At six, Etem made the transition to ice, joining a house league in his hometown of Long Beach, then advancing through select teams run by the L.A. Hockey Club, an elite program based in Orange County. A stint at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the fabled Minnesota prep school where Sidney Crosby played, led to an invitation to join the Medicine Hat Tigers of Canada’s Western Hockey League, where the 19-year-old has established his bona fides as a blue-chip NHL prospect. Last week, he became the first WHL player in 11 years to score 51 goals in 50 games. Next fall, he’ll attend the training camp of the Anaheim Ducks, who took him in the first round of last year’s NHL entry draft.

Canadians may dismiss Etem as an anomaly—the SoCal equivalent of, say, a gifted Slovenian discovered by a diligent scout. But if the growing numbers of young Americans taking a shine to hockey are any guide, we’ll soon see more like him. U.S.A. Hockey, the sport’s governing body south of the border, is on track for its fourth straight year of record enrolment, having cracked the half-million player mark for the first time in 2010-11. The U.S. has yet to catch Canada—we had 572,000 players last year of all ages, male and female. But its trend lines are better. Since the early 1990s, when the NHL embarked on its aggressive expansion into the U.S., the number of Americans playing the game has ballooned by 257 per cent. Canada’s registration levels have remained comparatively flat, averaging 550,000 over the last decade.

Surprisingly, much of the upsurge has occurred in sunbelt regions whose mere mention still induces snickers from the sport’s northern purists. By the end of last year, fully 42,988 players had registered in U.S.A. Hockey’s southeast region, encompassing former hockey wastelands like Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. That’s a near-tenfold increase from the number playing 20 years ago, and has been accompanied by similar growth in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific regions.

It has also taken place within the most desirable demographic from the point of view of organizers. Last season, the national governing body enrolled its 100,000th player below the age of eight. A further 11,000 have signed up so far this year, says Pat Kelleher, U.S.A. Hockey’s assistant executive director in charge of membership development, suggesting enthusiasm for the sport among young parents.

How, then, does a country go about selling the game to kids living amid palm trees or mesas? First, says Kelleher, by getting them on skates. This Saturday, 200 arenas across the U.S. will hold “Try Hockey for Free” days, when children are provided gear and on-ice instruction for the purpose of acquainting them with the game. The sessions are part of U.S.A. Hockey’s annual Hockey Weekend in America, which offers local hockey associations the chance to dispel myths that have travelled with the sport from its northern headwaters. “We get to talk to parents and tell them that their kids won’t be playing at 5 a.m. six days a week, that they won’t lose their teeth,” says Kelleher. “For us to grow, we have to make this as customer-friendly as possible.”

It also requires aggressive marketing, and for that the NHL’s sunbelt franchises can take the lion’s share of credit—hard as that may be for some Canadians to accept. Kelleher, for one, traces part of the upturn in registrations to a boom in arena construction not long after the NHL established franchises in the South. “Florida went from having four sheets of ice to having 26,” he notes. “There was simply more capacity for us to grow.” Craig Ludwig, a retired NHL defenceman, recalls arriving in east Texas in 1993, the year the Minnesota North Stars transferred to Dallas, to find his sport had zero footprint in his new hometown. “I remember sitting in the stands at an exhibition game that first season,” says Ludwig, who grew up in hockey-savvy Wisconsin, “and hearing a couple of cowboys ask why they didn’t put three points on the scoreboard when someone got a goal. You know: like a field goal in football. That’s how bad it was.”

So the Stars set about dispatching players like Ludwig to public appearances throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where they explained the niceties of offside, icing and too many men on the ice. Then, fatefully, the team bought the city’s only local rink out of bankruptcy to use as a practice facility. “We kind of stumbled into the business,” explains Stars president Jim Lites, who oversaw the club’s move into amateur hockey. “But there was a lot of demand to play hockey from transplanted northerners, and after the Stars gained popularity, enrolment went through the roof.”

Today, three “StarCenter” ice complexes operate in and around Dallas, providing venues to more than 5,000 local players. Lites owns two of them, while Ludwig, who played six seasons in the city before retiring in 1999, is assistant coach of an elite midget club in another. Meantime, the Stars’ experience has become a template for growing the game in other southern locales. Owners of the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings all have stakes in local arena complexes, while the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes sponsor their own youth hockey programs.

Such success, it goes without saying, is bound to tweak Canadian insecurity—notwithstanding our recent Olympic triumphs, or per capita participation levels in hockey that dwarf America’s. We’re right to worry. Much as we love the game, Canada’s low birth rate threatens to cut the pool of young people who might play it by nearly five per cent over the next decade, according to a report prepared last year for Hockey Canada and the country’s NHL teams. Worse, new Canadians are a lot less likely to sign up for hockey than native-born ones. If current trends hold, the number of young people playing hockey will fall by more than 27 per cent over the next 10 years.

Officials with Hockey Canada, the sport’s national governing body, acknowledge that the demographic time bomb caught them off guard. For more than a decade, they say, enrolment in the country’s 13 regional branches has been propped up by the influx of girls, women and adult men signing up for rec leagues. But female participation has levelled off since 2008, notes Glen McCurdie, the organization’s vice-president of membership services, while the greying of Canada’s player pool is no sign of the game’s future health.

As a result, McCurdie and his staff are taking a hard look at U.S.A. Hockey’s recruiting stratagems, including a modified version of the Try Hockey for Free day in immigrant-heavy cities. Next year, the organization plans to roll out a Hockey Canada membership card, which will confer discounts on everything from shin pads to hotel rooms for travelling teams. “For a long time, we just opened the doors and kids across the country flocked to register,” McCurdie says. “We recognize now that we need to get into the recruitment game. For us that’s a big change.”

Canada does, however, enjoy one advantage the U.S. does not: namely, a cultural attachment to the sport that will see it through demographic headwinds. In an annual poll of sports followers in the U.S., only five per cent of respondents named hockey last month as their favourite game, a share that has remained static over the past seven years. The sport appeared to eclipse pro basketball in this year’s poll, run by Harris Interactive, but only because hoops has plunged in popularity from its highs of 13 per cent in the late 1990s. Hockey still lags behind football (36 per cent), baseball (13) and auto racing (8).

Still, even incremental gains are good news for a sport Americans once regarded as an oddity, while every successful run by a U.S. NHL franchise enhances the game’s profile. Last week, the Washington Post gave rare front-page coverage to the Capitals, crediting the D.C. area’s only winning pro sports team for an explosion in youth hockey in Maryland and Virginia. “It’s the Ovi factor,” one minor-league coach told the paper, in reference to Alex Ovechkin, the team’s dynamic and theatrical Russian captain. “It’s got kids excited about hockey and the Caps.” In Massachusetts, where the Boston Bruins are preparing to defend last year’s Stanley Cup title, TV viewership of NHL games has soared, while the ratings for NHL broadcasts on NBC’s main network have inched up nine per cent over last year’s. So far this season, the league has averaged 1.36 million per game.

Will America eventually unseat Canada as hockey’s leading power? The logic of numbers would suggest so. With 10 times the population, and a birth rate that exceeds replacement level, the U.S. is likely to surpass this country in total hockey registrations within the next decade. Fully 207 of the 952 players who played in the NHL last season hail from the United States. And few in American hockey circles have forgotten how close their national men’s team came to spoiling Canada’s gold-medal victory at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Yet the idea of leapfrogging Canada is secondary to players like Emerson Etem, who has twice represented his country at the world junior championships. In his mind, hockey acumen now transcends international boundaries, which is why he didn’t hesitate when he was invited to play in Medicine Hat. “The game in California is based on skill development, stickhandling and speed,” he points out. “Here, it’s more defensive-minded and rugged, but anywhere you play it’s a battle every night.”

Etem’s 50-plus goals in junior hockey won’t mean much, of course, when he lines up against NHL competition at the Ducks’ training camp. Nor will his status as a homeboy, who took his first strides on wheels just a stone’s throw from Anaheim’s home arena. But as hockey’s renaissance in the home of the brave proceeds apace, Etem can be certain of one thing: he won’t be judged by the country on his passport.