The NHL has been so closely tied to hockey’s growth in the United States, from the very beginning really. However, there are two significant events that altered the game forever in this country: Southeast expansion and The Trade.
Wayne Gretzky coming to Los Angeles in 1988 via the trade that is 25 years old today was an earth-shattering moment in the hockey world. Not only did it have a major impact on how the NHL was viewed and followed in the United States, it was a seminal moment in the hockey participation boom of the early 1990s in America.
Unfortunately, the state-by-state numbers tied to USA Hockey playing membership I have only go back to 1990-91, but even then it tells the tale of what Wayne Gretzky coming to LA really meant. We’ll probably never see anything like it ever again, but that incredible growth laid the foundation for a new era of hockey in the United States.
Coming up after the jump, the remarkable growth after The Trade in California and the rest of the country.
The following is an excerpt from a May 2012 post on USofH:
In 1990-91, Gretzky Fever was in its third season. There were 4,830 players registered with USA Hockey in the entire state of California. More ice rinks began popping up to meet the growing demand and by 1992-93, that number nearly doubled to 9,316. After another two years, the numbers grew by 67 percent to 15,537 in 1995-96.
So Gretzky comes in and within just five years of his move to LA, California hockey grew by more than 100 percent. We’ll never see anything like that ever again.
In 1990-91, USA Hockey had 195,125 registered hockey players across America. By 1992-93, that number jumped to 262,873. That was a 34 percent spike, a massive number by more recent standards. So hockey was growing nationally, but not nearly at the rate experienced in California.
Every year, hockey kept getting bigger and bigger in California and by 1995-96, hockey registration numbers ballooned to 15,537, a 221.6 percent increase from just six seasons prior. That’s an increase of almost 11,000 players in six years, and that doesn’t even include the two seasons immediately after the trade.
Also of importance in that span, the NHL expanded to San Jose and Anaheim, which was only made more feasible by the resounding success of Gretzky in LA. That opened the door to even more growth in the state.
The NHL was getting into more major U.S. markets in non-traditional areas where the potential for growth was extremely high. As the NHL expanded to areas like Florida and Texas, the doubts were so great in terms of whether or not it would work. There are still doubts, but when you look at the way hockey has grown in both of those states over the last two decades, it’s tough to call expansion a failure.
The league may have expanded whether Gretzky was traded or not, but because he was, he showed that hockey can work where it’s not supposed to. The result has been continual growth throughout the United States.
By 1995-96, as the first wave of expansion was beginning to take hold, hockey participation had risen to 368,402 registered players, an 88 percent spike from 1990-91 and an addition of more than 100,000 players since 1992-93.
Over the years, the growth has tapered off, as replicating the booms of the early 1990s would probably be impossible. Growth hasn’t completely flattened though. It’s been a more steady incline over the last decade, but it’s still moving forward.
As of last season, the state of California had 24,126 USA Hockey-registered players, the most its ever had in one year and almost 20,000 more than in 1990-91. The Golden State ranks seventh in the country in terms of hockey population, which at the time of the Gretzky trade seemed like a pipe dream.
California isn’t alone. Texas, Florida, Colorado and Ohio, all including markets the NHL entered after the Gretzky trade, have experienced remarkable growth and now sit among the top 15 states in the country in terms of player participation.
In 2012-13, Texas had a record 11,861 registered hockey players, while Florida had nearly 12,000 as well. Colorado is over 13,000 and Ohio has more than 14,000. Among those states, only Ohio had more than 4,000 players in 1990-91. Texas had 868, total, back then. We’re talking gigantic, meaningful growth.
Meanwhile, the United States boasted 511,279 registered hockey players in 2012-13. That’s growth of 116 percent since 1990-91.
American hockey would have grown either way, but there’s not a chance it would have exploded like it did when it did without Gretzky coming to LA. The foundation was already set in place by so many who built hockey in the United States, but Gretzky swung open the door to everyone else and they came pouring in.