Raw Numbers: The NHL’s Impact on the South

The potential relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers has created a lot of buzz and there are passionate arguments on both sides. To step away from those arguments just for a second, and to take a look at the much bigger picture, I’ve collected some numbers from the NHL’s most “controversial” locales.

Atlanta may end up being the poster child for what some have called the NHL’s “failed experiment” of Southeast expansion. However, as I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, there are so many indicators that prove its working. We just don’t see them as easily as empty seats.

To me, one of the best indicators of the NHL’s biggest influence is prompting people to try the sport for themselves. To not only be a fan, but an active participant. Some people don’t have the means or the patience to pick up a sport as difficult as hockey. However, having a local NHL team to show just how fun the game can be, many kids, and as my research found, many adults are diving right into hockey.

The NHL is a youth hockey organization’s greatest marketing tool because of its nationwide exposure. In a local market, that exposure to the sport increases incredibly. Being able to see the best players in the world is inspiring to a lot of kids. That is why putting hockey in places where they “shouldn’t work” and giving an honest effort can help the game’s influence spread.

Coming up after the jump… a look at the raw numbers.

Before I dive right in, the vast majority of this information was acquired via public records on USAHockey.com. You can check out the organization’s detailed membership statistics here. USA Hockey’s most detailed statistics available on the web only go back to 1998-99. I was able to attain some state-by-state numbers from USA Hockey that date back to 1990-91 (or pre-expansion, if you will).

So without further ado, let me explain my research. This is by no means scientific, as statistics were never my forte. SEE: Journalism major.

I took a look at some of the most hotly debated homes of NHL teams: Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, Miami, Tampa Bay and Dallas. I looked at membership records for each state in which these teams are located dating back to the 1998-99 season. I also looked at pre-expansion numbers separately (they are not included in the spreadsheet linked below). I’ll have another post entirely about hockey in the U.S. before the NHL’s expansion of the early 1990s coming soon to share those findings.

The numbers I most closely examined were the total number of ice hockey players in each state. My numbers do not include coaches, referees or inline players, which also make up a large portion of USA Hockey’s membership. In addition to the total number of ice hockey players, I looked at the numbers for certain age groups: 6 & Under (Mini-Mite), 7-8 (Mite), 9-10 (Squirt) and 11-12 (Pee Wee), all ages in which a player is most likely to take up the sport. I also looked at the adult hockey numbers in each state, due to the growing numbers in adult hockey nationwide. Note: the numbers by age breakdown were only available from 2005-06 on. The complete 2010-11 numbers will not be available until June.

You can see my crude spreadsheet of the raw numbers here.

Starting with Georgia, as that is the hockey market in question, the impact of the Thrashers has been felt by the hockey community. I documented some of this in my last post on this subject, but wanted to show something more specific.

Prior to the Thrashers coming to town in 1999-2000, a total of 911 people were playing ice hockey in Georgia (1998-99). The impact of a new NHL team was immediately felt in 1999-2000, when membership increased by 40.7%. There are now 2,142 hockey playing Georgians, which in 10 years for an area with no hockey tradition is pretty solid.

What makes Georgia’s numbers most encouraging, is that the vast majority of its membership is kids. New hockey players just learning to love the game. Of the 2,142 players in 2009-10, 1,808 (84.4%) are below the age of 18.

Additionally, a steady climb such as the one we’re seeing in Georgia cannot be accomplished without good retention. So not only are kids playing hockey, they’re sticking with it.

Are the numbers eye-popping in Georgia? No, they are not. However, 11 years is a short period of time when it comes to building a culture. This is a hockey culture being built from the ground up, essentially. The time between the old Atlanta Flames and the Thrashers was too vast for any solid culture to have been established. When you see the amount of time it has taken for hockey to grow in similar markets, it’s easy to tell that there just isn’t enough time passed to call Atlanta a complete failure.

A comparable market to Atlanta is Nashville, as far as hockey tradition. Tennessee’s hockey community has grown gradually over the last several years. Despite starting with a higher number of players as a state (1,176 in 1998-99), Tennessee’s biggest growth spurt didn’t come until the Preds put together a 106-point season (2005-06), their best at that point. The excitement generated led to a bump in numbers.

Despite a lack of many places to play, Tennessee’s membership increased from 2,080 players in 2005-06 to 2,495 in 2006-07. That’s a boost of 20% in just one year. Ever since, Tennessee’s membership has hovered around the 2,400 mark.

However, like Georgia, the most encouraging numbers in Tennessee are the continually growing youth hockey numbers, particularly at the 9-10 age level. Retention rates have been high as well. The membership boost in 2006-07, which saw a record 262 players under the age of six, has held through the other age groups, for the most part, over the last few years. Additionally, Tennessee’s adult hockey community has grown steadily since 2004-05.

With the excitement generated by the Preds this past season, we might see a similar bump in membership to that of 2006-07 in 2011-12. USA Hockey Magazine featured the growing hockey community in Tennessee in its last issue.

Quick side note: For the last three seasons USA Hockey has made a concerted effort to grow youth hockey particularly in the 4-8 age group. Yesterday, the organization released the reports on growth from each of its affiliates during the 2010-11 season. The Southern Amateur Hockey Association, which includes both Georgia and Tennessee (along with Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi) reported a growth of 18.4% among the age group. The 1,340 players registered in the 8 & Under age group in the region marks the highest total ever in that category for SAHA. Of those 1,340 players, 790 (32.6%) were in their first year of organized hockey. USA Hockey experienced a 10% nationwide increase in the 8 & Under age group. In 2010-11, there were a record 105,394 8 & Under players registered with USA Hockey. More to come on this topic soon…

While Atlanta and Nashville are comparable, in time of existence and hockey tradition, perhaps both can aspire to reach a similar level as the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes have been a catalyst for tremendous growth in North Carolina.

In the year following the Hurricanes’ inaugural NHL season, North Carolina had a membership of 2,149, many of which were adults. In 2009-10, the state possessed 5,598 hockey players and the youth numbers have soared. That’s 160.5% growth in 11 years.

Not surprisingly the Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 was a big contributor to the growth. North Carolina’s membership jumped by nearly 1,000 members the following season and ever since, youth numbers have been on the rise. Success breeds interest, interest breeds influence.

North Carolina’s numbers reached an all-time high in 2007-08, however economic woes are likely to blame for the slight dip over the last few years. NC’s biggest losses were among adults. In a bad economy, adult hockey suffers because it’s an easy expense to cut out.

However, the youth hockey numbers were at a record high in 2009-10. Last season, 2,953 players under the age of 18 were registered in Carolina. Over the last five seasons, youth hockey has grown by 21.5%. The growth rate was even better at the younger age levels. There were 1,743 players aged 12 and younger registered in North Carolina in 2009-10, an increase of 31.25% from 2005-06.

 I decided to take a look at how hockey has grown in Florida and Texas, which have both had NHL hockey since 1993. Showing the growth in these states might illustrate what a hockey market can do over a longer period of time. Long have these markets been maligned as not “hockey friendly.” However, since the NHL came on down, the impact has been enormous.

The Tampa Bay Lightning came along in 1992, with the Florida Panthers following in 1993. The hockey-playing population in the entire Southeast region in 1990-91 was around 6,000, with around 1,200 in Florida. Today, there are more than 10,800 hockey players in the state of Florida alone. From 1991 to 2009, Florida’s hockey-playing population has grown by 804.7%

In 2009-10, nearly 1,000 players under the age of eight were playing hockey in Florida. The 6 & Under age group experienced the biggest boost of all, growing by 43.3% from 2008-09 to 2009-10. Seen Stamkos? (There’s a lot more to it than Stamkos, but I had to take a shot.)

While Texas is not considered part of the Southeast per se, I wanted to include the state due to its incredible growth. As the success of the Stars has fluctuated over the years, so has the hockey membership. However, before the Dallas Stars came to town, hockey was as close to non-existent as you can get.

In 1990-91, there were 868 registered hockey players. Today, there are nearly 11,000. Hockey in Texas has grown by a staggering 1,156.8%.

Texas has come a long way in 20 years and is only getting better. I’d argue that none of that would be possible without the Stars. There are few teams in the National Hockey League that have devoted as much time, money or energy into developing a youth hockey community.

The team has helped open numerous arenas around the state and has been a huge supporter of local youth hockey. Essentially, the Stars were part of building Texas amateur hockey from the ground up.

When the team won the Stanley Cup in 1999, membership increased by more than 1,100 the following season. Since then, the membership has fluctuated over the years, but has remained fairly high and has been trending up over the last four seasons.

Quick note on the Texas numbers if you’re looking at the spread sheet: In 2006-07, the membership increased from 7,017 to 10,403. The reason for that was likely an increased number of adult players that had previously not been registered with USA Hockey.

Adult hockey has continued to blow up, even after that big bump in numbers. So has youth hockey’s membership and retention. And not only is the state of Texas getting more players on the ice, the state is beginning to churn out elite talent.

Flower Mound’s Chris Brown plays for the University of Michigan and was selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2009 Entry Draft’s second round. He won bronze with the U.S. National Junior Team this year. Plano-native Stefan Noesen skated for the Plymouth Whalers this season and is poised to be a high pick in 2011. Meanwhile, another Plano boy and Dallas Stars AAA product, Seth Jones, is looking like he could be the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 and won gold with the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team in April. So there are some big-time players coming out of the state. An athlete-rich region is having more athletes choose hockey. That says something.

Now you can look at these numbers any way you want. However, it is undeniable that hockey has grown immensely throughout the South. So while the fan support has lacked and attendance has struggled, the game is growing. The influence is growing.

As each passing day brings more doubt into whether or not the Atlanta Thrashers will remain, one can’t help but feel for a youth hockey community that is developing. What Georgia has been able to accomplish in 11 years with a hockey team that doesn’t inspire much confidence is to be commended. If they had more time, maybe it would work. We just don’t know, and it’s looking more like we’ll never find out.


Stay tuned for another post regarding the nationwide impact of NHL expansion and how hockey has grown over the last 20 years.


About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in Grow the Game, NHL, USA Hockey, Youth Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Raw Numbers: The NHL’s Impact on the South

  1. Mike Phelan says:

    Interesting. The numbers rival baseball numbers in France (another inconsequential nation with respect to that sport). Pro leagues should no exist to promote grass roots sport. They should represent the pinnacle of achievement of a sport in a community. By that metric, these communities have not earned NHL clubs. Right now they are simply paying to watch foreigners who come from communities that have earned it, but have likely not been given a club because of the ridiculous pro-USA policies of the NHL.
    No matter. Reality is now coming to bite them in the bum.

    • Rob Schmit says:

      So, Mike, these areas are basically “undeserving” because they are geographically disadvantaged with mild winters and no frozen lakes and ponds to skate on? How many players end up playing for their hometown teams (even across sports)? I’m willing to bet it’s less than 1%. The league itself is the pinnacle of achievement, not the local team. Having a local NHL team inspires young hockey players to play the sport, and grow the sport and inspire new teams. Your “metric” is poor. More impressive, is that in Georgia, a state which has experienced a large population growth, the growth of youth hockey has outpaced that growth over the same period. That kind of expansion is only possible with a franchise there.

      • Brooke Hellier says:

        I agree with Rob. I’m from North Carolina & I absolutely love the Carolina Hurricanes. We get snow two or three times a year, if that so it’s pretty much impossible for kids to grow up playing it on lakes and such like they do up north. And honestly, we don’t care that we don’t have any ‘hometown’ players because I can tell you we will always love our ‘Canes, no matter what. Come down to the south & I promise you, you will find hockey fans just as dedicated and inspired by our team as anybody in the northern portion of the United States.

        In fact, I’d wager that here in NC there are probably more fans of the Hurricanes than there are of the Carolina Panthers; I see much more car decals and jerseys for the Hurricanes around the state than I do for the Panthers.

  2. Pingback: Puck Headlines: Samuelsson, Ebersol out; Ben Eager Wiki-vandal | | sportsport

  3. Eric says:

    Everybody says in Canada, hockey is like a religion, everybody plays hockey, hockey is like God. However, Hockey Canada has only over 1 million registered members, that includes men,women,boys,girls,young,old, … in a country of about 33 millions residents. If indeed everyone in Canada plays hockey, they have to register with Canada Hockey to be allowed to participate, the total number of registered players must be over 1 million players in Canada. The number just doesn’t add up.

    If you add up the total of all young players in the 3 CHL hockey leagues, plus all the Jr A league teams in Canada, … the total number of players is way less than 10,000 players at any one time, maybe half of that at most (I don’t have the exact number, just my best estimated number stated here for discussion purpose).

    If you add up the total number of players in all NCAA hockey programs & Jr teams in the US such as NCAA, USHL, NAHL, … other Jr Hockey leagues in the US, the tally should be a couple of thousands as well. In that light, the US is not far behind our northern neighbors in terms of hockey participation. (Again, this is just my best estimate).

    For comparison purposes, in the country of Brasil in Central America, there are over 10 million Soccer players (ten millions) in all age groups, … pros, colleges, clubs, amateur teams, …. With that kind of number, it’s almost impossible to pick the best 17 players every time they need to select their best team representing their country in the World Cup. No wonder the Brasilians dominate the world of soccer for a longest time.

  4. Eric says:

    Canadian Justin Bieber’s visit to La Cave restaurant in Costa Mesa California last Thursday night

  5. Jay Ray says:

    Great article Chris. Living in Arizona, I cant tell you how far along Hockey has come and it is primarily because of the Coyotes. Also, I think the next step is to have some schools go D1 in hockey in places like Florida, Texas, or California. The NCAA schools need to get more teams in these places ASAP but Title IX is the killer.

  6. Kat says:

    your numbers aren’t exactly right for Atlanta. you’re only counting USA Hockey registered players which includes all the youth hockey and the Ice Forum adult leagues. we also have an independent league, Atlanta Amateur Hockey League (http://www.atlantahockey.org/) which is one of the largest independent hockey leagues in the USA. we have over 1,000 adult players of which only a small handful are USA Hockey registered.

    • Chris Peters says:

      Thanks Kat, I only included USA Hockey registered, and without an accurate count from the Atlanta Hockey League, I can’t include it.. Glad to know that there’s more people playing in Georgia though.

      • Kat says:

        no problem. I’d give an accurate account if I could but we have 5 leagues with varying degrees of crossover. in our “Open League” where you are only allowed to be on 1 team per season we have 52 teams in 8 divisions divided by skill level adding up to just under 1,000 players for the upcoming Summer season. there are also many players in our supplemental leagues who do not participate in the Open League which pushes our membership to over 1,000 adult players. thanks for the great article! 🙂

  7. Al says:

    Its sad to see the Thrashers leaving Atlanta. It seemed to do well for a uncomitted ownership group. Youth and recreational hockey seemed to be on the rise, of course facilities are needed for growth, speaking of which, there was a facility added in Cumming, GA last year. The owner had said they were quite overwelmed by how busy it was right from the start and were considering adding another sheet of ice.
    Another rink has been built in Columbus GA commencing this spring.

  8. Pingback: Blown Opportunity: NHL leaves Atlanta « 3rd Man In

Comments are closed.