Over the next two weeks, thousands of words will be spilled out in both real and digital ink about the growth of hockey in the state of California. Most of those stories will have a lot of general thoughts about how far the game has come, but I wanted to give you the straight numbers to show just how far it has come over the last 20-plus years and where it might be headed.
With the Los Angeles Kings back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 19 years, hockey is back in Hollywood. Interest is at its highest point locally in the Post-Gretzky Era. As a result, the Kings, the National Hockey League and the game as a whole should be better for it.
What The Great One did for the game in the Golden State is well documented. Hollywood loves its stars and did it ever love Wayne Gretzky. With No. 99 in the lineup, the Kings played to a packed stadium and built an interest in the sport that made an indelible impact on the growth of hockey locally.
Though the ball essentially got rolling when Gretzky came to Cali, it would have been really easy for all of it to tail off in the last decade-plus without him. That wasn’t the case however. The seed was planted and the fans and volunteers at the grassroots level kept the water on.
Since 1990-91, California’s hockey-playing population has grown by a staggering 361.8 percent. As of 2010-11, there were 22,305 USA Hockey-registered players, the highest total in the history of California hockey. That number also gives California the seventh-highest hockey-playing population in the United States, trailing traditional hockey hotbeds of Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Coming up after the jump, a detailed look at California’s hockey growth, where it has made the biggest gains and where it’s going next.
Thanks to the fine folks at USA Hockey, I have membership totals dating back to 1990-91 for each state, with much more detailed breakdowns from 2005-06 on. If you’re familiar with my Raw Numbers posts from last summer, there will be a a slight overlap here, but mostly new detailed information, especially from the last five years.
Without further ado, here’s a look at the raw numbers in California.
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.
Then, in the middle of that 1995-96 season, Gretzky was traded to St. Louis and not surprisingly growth began to slow. The Kings were three years removed from that exciting run to the Stanley Cup and the biggest star in the game was gone.
The Gretzky Era in California, combined with NHL expansion to San Jose and Anaheim, brought forth a 221.8 percent increase in membership between 1990 and 1996. That kind of rapid growth would be hard, if not impossible to replicate. That said, it was that base set up by such rapid growth that allowed amateur hockey to continue to move forward in the state, just a bit more slowly.
By 1998-99, the hockey membership had made it to 16,771, only an increase of 1,234 players over four seasons. Then things started to fluctuate a bit.
Between 2000 and 2006, the hockey playing membership in California never managed to stay above 17,500 for more than a season, dipping to its lowest numbers in nearly a decade in 2005-06 when 16,176 players were registered statewide.
However growth wasn’t really as sluggish as it appeared during that span. Adult hockey throughout the country was not tracked as accurately as it is today. After an initiative to get more adult hockey leagues under USA Hockey’s registration, the numbers spiked once again in California.
In 2006-07, California’s hockey-playing population ballooned to 19,660, picking up more than 2,000 “new” members in the 20 and over age group. There were also improving numbers at the youth levels, which would continue.
California eclipsed 20,000 registered players for the first time in 2007-08. Another 1,000-plus gain in the 20 & over range led to a total membership of 21,167.
Membership dipped again, possibly due to California’s significant economic woes, and hovered around 20,400 in 2008-09 and 2009-10, but the trend shifted once again in 2010-11.
Just last year, California boasted a record 22,305 registered hockey players statewide. This time it was not bolstered solely by rising adult hockey numbers, which once again spiked by more than 1,000 members in 2010-11. Youth hockey at every level except the often difficult-to-maintain 17-18 age range (which only dropped by 19 players) experienced growth.
California saw a 10.5 percent increase in players ages 16 and below, with the biggest gains being made in the 10 & Under, 8 & Under and 6 & Under categories (14.6% combined). Those are the most crucial age groups to grow annually, as players that take up hockey between the ages of six and eight are more likely to keep coming back each year.
That 10 percent increase in overall membership in 2010-11 was the largest the state has experienced post-Gretzky.
UPDATE (5/30): USA Hockey recently made available its membership statistics for 2011-12. It was another year of growth nationwide, and California was no exception. The Golden State’s hockey-playing population grew to a new record of 24,101, an 8.05 percent increase from the previous year and second-highest boost in the post-Gretzky era. California also significantly outpaced the national growth of 2.1 percent. It was another year of increased membership in adult hockey as well as every age level from 12U to 6U. This is a very positive trend heading into next season with Stanley Cup Fever taking hold.
What comes next for hockey’s growth in the state could be closely tied to what the Kings do in the Stanley Cup Final. Here are a few recent examples of how the Stanley Cup helped hockey explode in a trio of sleeping hockey markets:
Though we haven’t seen this season’s numbers to show what kind of impact the Boston Bruins had on the already high amateur hockey population in Massachusetts The Boston Bruins Stanley Cup win last year had a noticeable impact on the traditionally strong hockey state of Massachusetts. However it had been nearly 40 years since the Bs’ last Cup and everyone knows Boston loves a champ. Thanks in part to the 2011 Cup win, USA Hockey membership in the Bay State grew by 4.2 percent, doubling the national average. Massachusetts now boasts a record high of 46,788 registered hockey players statewide (UPDATE: 5/30).
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks showed what can happen when an established fan base awakens after years of not-so-patient waiting for something good to happen.
The Penguins reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, but fell short of winning the Cup. That run alone helped accelerate growth locally, triggering a five percent increase in hockey membership. Following Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup win in 2009, hockey membership in Western Pennsylvania rose by another 14 percent. A near-20 percent growth over two seasons is pretty significant and it hasn’t stopped yet. In 2010-11, Western Pennsylvania boasted a record high of 12,311 players, which represented a 13 percent spike from the previous season. With Sidney Crosby, the Stanley Cup, a new building and everything in between, Pittsburgh and Western PA youth hockey has benefited greatly.
Illinois, which has always been a strong state in terms of hockey participation had less room to grow than Western Pennsylvania, based on established membership, or so you’d think.
After the Blackhawks run to the Western Conference Final in 2009, Illinois’ membership increased by 2,064 players, a 13 percent gain. After the Blackhawks claimed their first Cup since 1961, Illinois grew to a record 26,528 players, up 10.5 percent from the previous year and 20.8 over two years. That may be only the beginning if what happened in Western Pennsylvania happens in Illinois.
California has had a Stanley Cup winner in the last five years, too. There was a seven percent spike in membership after the Anaheim Ducks won in 2007, though it could be argued the Kings have more reach than the Ducks and therefore could make a more significant impact with a Stanley Cup victory.
California may not be able to grow by 19-20 percent over the next two years as we saw in Western PA and Illinois. However, coming off a year in which hockey grew by 10 percent statewide, it wouldn’t be outlandish to predict something between 10 and 20 percent, which is thousands of new hockey players. (Note: The season that would be most impacted by the Kings’ success should be 2012-13, which we won’t have numbers for to review until June 2013.)
Though California is the most populous state in America, and the hockey population barely scratches the surface of the 37 million people living there, it’s a start. One would hope that this growth can go up by 5-10 percent per year for the next several. This run to the Cup Final could and probably should accelerate it.
We’ve seen what Gretzky can do. Now we have to wait and see what Stanley can do (win or lose).
For hockey fans that have been with the Kings for years and years, get ready for a lot of new people pretending they know what LA Kings hockey is all about. Bandwagon fans can be annoying for the die-hards that have been through the thick and thin and the Burger King jerseys, but it is important to welcome these
bandwagon new fans.
Today’s bandwagon fans are tomorrow’s die-hards and quite possibly tomorrow’s youth and adult hockey players and hockey moms and dads.
Everybody finds the game one way or another. Some just take a little while longer than others. No matter what, the more fans there are the better hockey is for it.
California truly is a hockey success story. There have been barriers to growth every step of the way, but people still kept attaching to the game. Wayne Gretzky had a lot to do with it, but without the volunteers and coaches at the grassroots levels, sharing their love of the game with thousands of kids, none of this is possible.
Gretzky is gone, but those grassroots people are still there, working everyday to make the game more accessible to anyone who wants to try it.
Because of their hard work, the best is yet to come for hockey in California.