Young boys and girls in California have plenty of choices when it comes to sports: soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, football, dance, martial arts… and that’s just scratching the surface.
There was a time when hockey would have been at the bottom of such a list, if it made it at all. Not anymore. According to USA Hockey affiliate membership reports for 2016-17, California saw the largest increase of 8U players in its history, up 25.2 percent to 3,553. Participation among girls was particularly impressive, jumping 49 percent, a new record high. USA Hockey’s data has consistently shown that growth among players ages 4 to 8 has a positive impact on retention in the larger 9 to 14 age group.
It’s no doubt one of the reasons USA Hockey is bringing the U.S. Women’s National Team to the Golden State as part of its The Time is Now Tour, presented by Toyota. The Dec. 15 matchup of Team USA and Canada in San Jose is the last stop on the team’s pre-Olympic tour of exhibition games.
In spite of hockey’s record growth, competition from other sports is just one of the barriers California and its neighboring states face in developing youth hockey players. For one, ice costs are higher than most other states. Ben Frank, USA Hockey’s California ADM coordinator and president of Junior Reign Youth Hockey, a USA Hockey Model Association, points out the state has no public rinks, unlike other states and Canada.
“All the rinks in California are private,” Frank explained. “They have to cover expenses generally with their income.”
Robert Savoie, director of hockey for Sharks Sports and Entertainment, agrees. “Imagine trying to keep a building cold [in California],” Savoie said. “Utility bills are pretty high.”
How has California seen such significant growth despite these hurdles? Frank believes it starts at the top, with both the NHL and AHL expanding into California, Arizona and Las Vegas.
“I grew up in Toronto, a hockey hotbed,” he said. “There’s six NHL teams in all of Canada. Now, where I live in southern California, there’s actually five NHL teams I can drive to within [those three states].”
The success of those teams hasn’t hurt, either, with the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings winning several Stanley Cups. “That has created big booms in interest and support,” Frank explained.
Both leagues have also been very supportive in promoting youth hockey, particularly with try-hockey-for-free and other USA Hockey-supported programs. “All the rinks in California have the opportunity to host these sessions where kids get equipment,” Frank explained. “The amount of promotion that goes into that is huge.”
USA Hockey’s commitment to its grassroots initiatives and American Development Model have been of particular benefit to California. With ice in shorter supply, clubs like Savoie’s were using principles like shared-ice practices before ADM was officially implemented around the country.
“We started the ADM when my youngest daughter was playing 8U,” Savoie said. “She’s 15 now. At the beginning, we struggled with the parents, because we had four games cross-ice at the same time. They didn’t understand. Now, everything is shared-ice.”
The increase of participation among girls is especially pleasing to Savoie, who has coached several teams since his own daughters started playing. He currently has two teams for each age group, about 160 girls total.
“Sometimes, girls don’t feel as comfortable on the ice; they’re not sure if they want to do it,” he said. “Since we have more girls now, they can play on the girls’ team. That helps a lot.”
Frank credits entry-level programs like learn-to-play for creating and maintaining that interest.
“Before these programs, a girl at an older age would have had to decide they want to play hockey, try to join a team, get equipment,” Frank said. “Now, with the focus being on the entry level, low cost, low commitment, it’s an open environment for families. I’ve seen 20 to 40 percent girls in these sessions. I think parents are more open to letting [girls] try it.”
What is the potential for growth among boys and girls moving forward? “I see it exploding,” Frank said. “College hockey hasn’t even hit California yet. I think it will. Junior hockey hasn’t, which I know it will. From what I can see, NHL teams are not slowing down with the resources they’re putting into their communities. We’re just at the beginning.”
With continued success of the professional teams, and aggressive marketing at the grassroots level, California has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about its youth hockey future.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc
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