With the most recent comments coming from Gary Bettman and the NHL owners regarding next season, there is valid concern that there might not be a next season. Everyone knows how bad another lockout could be for the NHL, but the league is not the only one at risk of suffering significantly negative impact.
There were more people playing hockey in the United States in 2011-12 than any season previous. More than 511,000 youth and adult players registered with USA Hockey last season. That’s the good news, but there’s some potentially bad news brewing.
If the last lockout is any indication, another NHL-less season could be detrimental to that tremendous growth hockey in the United States has enjoyed, particularly over the last three years.
This should concern the NHL for a number of reasons. Obviously, the NHL has a huge hand in helping the game grow, but they don’t grow the game just for the sake of hockey nationwide. They do it because they know that more players means more fans and also, way down the line, a deeper talent pool to pull from.
Coming into the 2004-05 season, USA Hockey’s player membership had grown every year since at least 1990-91 (public numbers only go back to that season). In 2004-05, hockey-playing membership dropped by 4,365 nationwide. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but a loss is a loss, especially when it comes on the heels of more than 15 years of growth.
Not only that, but the season following the lockout didn’t get any better. The 2005-06 season brought another net loss of 3,168 players nationwide for a grand total of 7,533 over two years, dropping the U.S. hockey-playing population by 1.7 percent.
Making matters worse, the losses were exclusively tied to youth hockey. Adult membership actually grew each season, which helped hide the significant losses in youth hockey. The season immediately following the lockout, USA Hockey’s youth hockey membership plummeted by a stunning 14,115 players. Such a loss was unprecedented, and has not been seen since.
Over the two years impacted most by the lockout, USA Hockey lost a total of 18,488 youth members. Nearly five percent of its youth hockey base was wiped out.
Youth hockey is the key to long term growth. Adult membership can be fickle, so there is a need for added focus on the youth game. More kids playing hockey now means more adults and coaches and officials later down the road. USA Hockey has even put an added effort into attracting players aged 8 & Under, citing that kids who start earlier tend to stick with it longer, leading to better retention numbers.
The single biggest benefit of the NHL playing hockey, in terms of growth, is the ability to attract new players to the sport through TV or live games. Most kids leave an NHL game awed by the speed and the energy in the building. Or they just think it looks fun to skate. There are plenty of reasons kids take up the game, but the NHL is the best commercial for playing hockey there is. It’s easily accessible to a wide audience and it costs USA Hockey nothing.
Retention has long been a concern, which makes it all the more important to bring in new players annually. Kids choose to play other sports, families decide they can’t afford it, kids quit when body checking is introduced, and on and on. The only way to augment those often rough retention numbers is to keep bringing in a steady stream of new kids and do your best to retain them.
Losing the NHL as that almost nightly commercial for playing hockey means that there won’t be as many ways to reach that wider audience of prospective players.
While USA Hockey has taken many steps to ensure long-term growth of the sport, the NHL has been and will continued to be a huge driver of that growth. The NHL’s southern and western expansion helped hockey membership explode in those states over the 20 years following, just to use a specific example. There are many others.
When it comes to the substantial losses USA Hockey experienced during 2004-05 and 2005-06, there may be only one other comparison.
The only period that comes close to matching those two years was 2008-09, when USA Hockey experienced a 1.7 percent loss in youth hockey membership from the previous season. The economic recession’s impact was felt most between 2007 and 2009 and is believed to have been the most significant reason for the brief downturn in membership.
The toughest economic times in the United States since the Great Depression and two seasons most impacted by the NHL lockout are the only years in more than 20 where USA Hockey experienced a loss in membership from the previous year. That’s saying something.
USA Hockey might be better positioned now than they were in 2004-05 to deal with a lockout, with many more membership growth programs, as well as an entire department geared toward membership development. Regardless, if the NHL doesn’t play, it is pretty safe to expect a serious halt in progress.
Since that significant dip in 2008-09, USA Hockey’s playing membership has been growing by leaps and bounds. Over a four-season span, membership grew from 465,975 in 2008-09 to 511,178 in 2011-12. That’s nearly 10 percent growth, despite still-difficult economic times. Additionally, there were 16,142 more youth hockey players in 2011-12 than in 2008-09.
That kind of progress is substantial for the long-term benefit of the game. A lockout-induced halt to such progress is of real concern. It might not be as significant as it was from 2004-06 for youth hockey in the United States, but another lockout is assuredly damaging overall.
Hypothetically, if there were a two-year-combined decrease of five percent in youth hockey, just like last time around, it would mean about 17,700 fewer youth hockey players in the United States by 2015. That’s significant.
I don’t think it will get that bad if there is indeed another lockout, but it won’t be good for the game, obviously. I am optimistic the NHL and NHLPA will find a common ground, even though the current back-and-forth in public certainly raises concern.
Being without the NHL for a season is one thing, but a potential two-year halt to the significant progress being made in growing the game nationwide is more than disappointing. There have been so many gains made for hockey in the United States, it would be a shame if the NHL disables it, even if it’s only temporary.