Today marks the inaugural State of American Hockey post. It is a piece I hope to continue annually, for as long as I run this blog. Now that the NHL Draft is out of the way, we can take a comprehensive look back at the year that was in American hockey and uncover a few ways it can be better next season.
It’s been quite a year for hockey in the United States. It’s been a year of excitement, growth and, in many ways, change. The 2010-11 season will likely be remembered as one in which hockey took a step forward in this country. USA Hockey’s membership rose, the NHL experienced rising attendance, record revenues and growing television ratings, and U.S. National Teams continued to impress on the international stage. Today, we will take a look at several facets of hockey in the United States, to comprehensively review what was done right this year and look forward to what can be done better in the future.
This State of American Hockey piece will be broken up into several categories including the NHL, USA Hockey membership, U.S. National Teams, College Hockey, Player Development (Junior hockey, NHL Draft) and a summary.
National Hockey League
The NHL is hockey’s front porch in the United States. It’s increasing national exposure and major-league status makes the NHL the first thing that will come to mind when most people think of hockey.
For the most part, this was a wildly successful year for the NHL. It has been a series of good years for the NHL as it has completely risen from the ashes of the 2004-05 Lockout better than ever before. The last three Stanley Cup champions in major U.S. media markets with revitalized fan bases have certainly helped. The Boston Bruins Stanley Cup Parade left little doubt that Boston’s “Hub of Hockey” nickname was an accurate one.
Interest in big-market teams in the U.S. is vital. Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Los Angeles are all relevant hockey markets with continually growing fan bases. The stronger hockey’s foothold in major American population centers, the more people it can reach.
The League also experienced record revenue. As interest rises, so does the willingness of sponsors to spend. Each of those dollars serves as tangible evidence of the NHL’s growing reach in the American sports landscape. Each of those dollars also give the NHL more to work with to continue its rise in the American sports landscape.
Television ratings are also on the way up, as Versus experienced a 17 percent increase in viewership during the regular season. Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals was the fourth most watched hockey game in U.S. history as 8.54 million people tuned in.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, however. The Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, leaving a hole in a major American media market for the NHL. Atlanta, which always seemed to have that potential for growth, never saw it materialize. There was no other solution, apparently, as the team failed as a business. However, there could be a significantly negative impact on what was a growing amateur hockey community.
While the loss of the Atlanta franchise will harm hockey in that city, other non-traditional markets are booming. Tampa Bay, Carolina and Nashville saw significant gains in attendance from last season. In fact, much of the NHL had increased attendance.
It was also an outstanding year for American players in the NHL.
Tim Thomas received both the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender (his second). The Flint, Mich., native is just the second American to win a Conn Smythe and also the second to win two Vezina Trophies (Frank Brimsek is the other).
Ryan Kesler, of the Vancouver Canucks, is a rising star in the NHL and was awarded the Frank J. Selke as the league’s best defensive forward. The native of Livonia, Mich., is the first American to win that award. Kesler was also the highest-scoring American in the NHL with 73 points, good for 15th overall in the league. His 41 goals tied him for fourth in the league.
Dan Bylsma, head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, received the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach. Bylsma, who hails from Grand Haven, Mich., has become a rising star among NHL coaches and is just the second American bench boss to win the Adams (John Tortorella is the other).
While it was a great year for Americans in the league, more can be done. Players like Thomas, Kesler, Ryan Miller, Patrick Kane and Zach Parise, are beginning to become superstars in the league. Yet the U.S. is still without that one shining star, that stands among the league’s elite on a consistent basis. Will there be an American player that can rise to the occasion to approach the level of players like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Lidstrom or Henrik Sedin? The U.S. is still without a Hart Trophy Winner. Is that player out there? If he is, will he lead American hockey into a new era? These are the questions that remain to be answered.
The NHL as a whole has done a fantastic job marketing itself and has positioned itself well for the future. The following season should allow the league to take another significant step forward in gaining a stronger foothold in the United States.
USA Hockey Membership
As I’ve written time and time again, one of the great ways to gauge hockey’s impact on the country is to find out how many people have decided to not only be a fan of the game, but be an active participant. According to the latest numbers from USA Hockey, a lot of people are making that leap.
For the first time in its history, USA Hockey surpassed 500,000 registered hockey players during the 2010-11 season. When including coaches and referees, USA Hockey’s total membership is more than 583,000. The organization experienced 5.5 percent growth among players and total membership increased by 4.4 percent. That’s a tremendous spike when dealing with these six-figure numbers.
There are more players under the age of eight playing hockey than ever before thanks to an increased concentration on that age group by USA Hockey’s membership development department.
Over the last 20 years, hockey has grown leaps and bounds from a membership perspective. USA Hockey has done a ton of work from the national office but has also received a great deal of help from each of its affiliates like the folks involved with Potomac Valley Hockey that have helped spark significant growth in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The positive growth has been great, but there’s no time for resting on laurels, and knowing the USA Hockey staff and volunteers as I do, there won’t be any. Hockey is a sport that is in constant need of forward progress from an amateur standpoint. Membership is the lifeblood of every organization and there’s rarely time to slow down. As long as there are slots available for kids and adults to play hockey, they need to be filled.
Continual initiatives to help make the game more affordable, such as the OneGoal equipment program, grants and donations, will allow more kids a chance to play. The key is to get players when they’re young, keep the game fun and when that child is ready he or she can make a decision to play more competitively or keep it recreational.
USA Hockey’s done a fantastic job with this portion of its responsibility and has made significant gains because of the hard work of its staff and dedicated volunteer base. They’ll need more of the same next season.
U.S. National Teams
It was another banner year for USA Hockey’s national teams as four of its five teams that play in IIHF-sanctioned world ice hockey tournaments medaled, including three taking gold.
The U.S. National Junior Team fell short in its quest to repeat as World Junior Champion, but took the bronze medal. The bronze marked the first time in WJC history that the U.S. earned medals in consecutive years. This is a tournament that the U.S. has had a mixed history with. However, over the last seven tournaments, Team USA has proven formidable and a constant threat to reach for a medal. In 2012, the U.S. will head to Canada with what could end up being one of the most talented teams in the tournament. Another medal in 2012, and the U.S. can consider itself an official annual contender.
Both U.S. Women’s teams won gold in their respective tournaments. The U.S. Women’s National Under-18 Team captured gold for the third time in four years, defeating Canada in the gold-medal game, 5-2. The U18 Women have dominated in the four years the tournament has existed, earning gold three times. The Women’s U18 Team has continued to position USA Hockey’s overall women’s program very well for the future.
The U.S. Women’s National Team captured its third consecutive IIHF World Women’s Championship with a 3-2 OT win over Canada. The U.S. has never won three consecutive at the women’s level and has now taken four of the last five golds. Despite the heartbreaking Olympic loss in 2010, the U.S. Women’s National Team is on an unprecedented run of success and looks like it’s building momentum for Sochi in 2014.
The U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team took it’s third consecutive gold medal at the IIHF World Men’s Under-18 Championship, downing Sweden 4-3 in overtime in the gold-medal game. The U.S. now owns a record six gold medals at the Under-18s and has medaled in each of the last eight tournaments, an unprecedented streak. This has been the bread and butter for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and each year, the U18s prove to be elite. The trick is now to get U18 wins to translate into more World Junior Championship wins.
The U.S. Men’s National Team finished eighth at the 2011 IIHF World Men’s Championship, falling to the Czech Republic in the quarters. Despite a very young team with a lack of star power, the U.S. found a way to make it to the medal round and improved on its 13th place finish of a year ago. Still, this is a tournament the U.S. just can’t seem to catch a break. The last medal came in 2004, when Team USA took bronze and it hasn’t won gold since… well… a really, really long time ago. Getting marquee players to attend has been difficult, but if the U.S. ever finds a way to get more of those guys to get involved, things could change quickly.
The U.S. National Team program is as strong as ever as its teams continue to rise to the occasion on the world stage. More consistent performances at the World Juniors and Men’s World Championship could take things to an entirely new level. It’s easier said than done, but USA Hockey is on the right track in this regard.
This was a season of great intrigue in college hockey. The University of Minnesota Duluth won its first national title in thrilling fashion at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Miami University’s Andy Miele won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.
However, the biggest news of the year came off the ice when it was announced that Penn State University was going to formulate a Division I hockey program for men and women. With six Big Ten schools possessing hockey teams by 2013-14, the conference announced it would add men’s hockey as an official conference sport.
That has led to great unrest and just Thursday, Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald reported that some of the major players in college hockey, including North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Miami, Nebraska-Omaha and potentially Notre Dame and Western Michigan, would be forming their own conference by 2013-14.
When plans of the Big Ten adding hockey were first announced, I believed it would be great for college hockey, so long as it did not lead to the dissolution of some of the smaller programs in Division I. This new conference changes everything. While it doesn’t spell imminent doom for the teams that will be “left over,” it does not bode well for the long term stability of many of those smaller, less financially sound programs.
These are uncertain times in college hockey. Scary times almost. I will have much more on this topic Monday. So make sure to catch the more in-depth conclusion to this portion of the State of American Hockey.
The United States has made great strides in player development thanks to the National Team Development Program, the various junior leagues around the country, particularly the United States Hockey League, and tremendous youth hockey programs across the country.
Sixty Americans were selected during the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, that’s second most all time. There were merely five U.S. players selected in the first round, but the quantity in Rounds 1-7 is what is encouraging. The number of Americans finding their way to the NHL continues to grow and the quality of those players continues to improve.
The USHL had 28 players from its league drafted, which was most of any American Junior League and even more than the QMJHL. The league continues to grow and improve, making it an attractive option for elite American players.
The NTDP had 17 alumni selected, continuing a very consistent stream of draftable prospects through that program. The track record of the NTDP is unrivaled. With well over 60 alumni in the NHL during 2010-11, it’s undoubtedly working and helping advance player development in the U.S. Considering the NTDP is just 14 years old and has grown the way that it has is simply remarkable.
At the youth level, USA Hockey has made significant strides with the formulation of the American Development Model. The ADM adheres to long-term athlete development principles in order to keep kids involved in the game and give them an environment that is both fun and developmentally sound. As the ADM is still just a few years old, we’re just beginning to see what its capable of. Providing a guiding light for youth hockey organizations around the country to help develop better hockey players is an important step in overall American player development.
Additionally, USA Hockey made a significant change in philosophy when the organization’s Board of Directors voted to delay bodychecking to the bantam age level. The move was made for player development purposes, but also for safety. Players will now have more time to focus on the vital skills such as shooting, passing, skating and stick handling, without worry of getting crunched with a big hit. USA Hockey also strengthened it’s head checking rules to do its best to protect its players.
USA Hockey’s latest initiatives have helped put it on the cutting edge of player development, however there is so much left to be done in regard to creating more highly-skilled players.
The U.S. currently falls behind countries like Sweden, Russia and Canada when it comes to elite skill players. There are plenty of great American players, but how many are the very best at a certain facet of the game? Perhaps none, at least not year-in and year-out.
We’ve improved a lot as a country in this area, but there is still plenty of ground to cover. It will be an important focus for USA Hockey to continue implementing and encouraging the use of long-term athlete development principles at all levels of hockey. It will also take a fair amount of cooperation from youth hockey coaches across the country to help implement these programs to help better prepare their hockey players.
The United States is a tremendous country for sports fans and participants. With the variety of sports kids have to choose from these days, it is highly encouraging to see that hockey is continuing to gain a following and spreading its influence throughout the country.
The NHL must continue to lead the charge in giving the game the best exposure so as to bring it to the largest audience possible. NHL Teams must also continue to build relationships within its community and local youth hockey clubs. The individual teams are the face of the game in their area and must act accordingly. The more people they reach, the more fans they’ll make and the better the rest of us will be for it.
The U.S. is full of NHL fans, but how many HOCKEY fans are there? Well, that number appears to be growing. Fans are showing more interest in minor league, junior, college and international hockey than ever before. That’s where the game continues to grow. NHL fans tend to be very focused on their own team, hockey fans consume a wider array of hockey-related media and merchandise. Hockey fans get out to high school, college, junior and minor league games, as well. The more ways people are finding themselves involved in hockey, the better.
While the NHL, USA Hockey and teams around the country can help spread the game, it is on us as fans to help supplement that growth. By sharing our passion with friends, family, coworkers and anyone in between, we can help grow our hockey community. Sometimes all it takes is inviting a few friends over for a game, or heading to the local rink for a high school tilt, or checking in with the local minor league or NHL team. There are so many ways to share the game with those around you.
So, next season, see if you can help grow hockey a little bit. Odds are, most of the people you share it with will like it and they’ll probably thank you later.
The U.S. is a great hockey country, but it’s not where it can be just yet. Continuous improvement and growth is the only way to keep hockey moving in the right direction. While a big part is up to those that work in hockey full-time, the rest is up to us.
If you have ideas about how the U.S. can improve as a hockey country, leave them in the comments below. Also, if you have some of your own highlights from the past hockey season that you’d like to share, by all means, please do.
It’s been a fantastic season, but I have no doubt that next year will be better. It’s been my pleasure to keep you up-to-date on the happenings in American hockey in my first season with the blog. I hope you’ll stick around over the summer and throughout next season as the United States of Hockey finds new ways to keep you informed. As always, thanks for reading, America.