The Stanley Cup is many things. The most famous trophy in professional sports, sure, but quite possibly the single-most important trophy to its sport, not just its league. Like many championships, winning the Stanley Cup Final is sure to lead to better ticket sales, more national TV appearances and increased merchandise sales. While a championship often helps the individual teams that wins them, the Stanley Cup can have a wide-ranging effect when it comes to the growth of the game in the winning team’s local market.
Stanley Cup wins by the local team has helped contribute to near 20% boosts in USA Hockey-registered membership in Texas (1999), North Carolina (2006), Western Pennsylvania (2009) and Illinois (2010).
The one thing all of those markets have in common is that the local team either won its first Cup or ended a Cup drought of more than 15 years. That is where the New Jersey Devils differ, and why the forecast is less optimistic for rampant growth of amateur hockey in the state.
The Devils have won the Cup three times since 1995, making it one of the most successful organizations in the NHL over the last 20 years. Because of those titles in relatively short succession, there is less intrigue and curiosity from the casual fan. The Devils’ established fans are no less excited about the prospects of another Stanley Cup, but has enough time passed since New Jersey’s last title to bring that fresh feeling of a title?
The amateur hockey numbers in New Jersey next year might be able to help answer that question. Coming up after the jump, a look at what happened to amateur hockey numbers in the seasons following each of New Jersey’s three titles.
In 1990-91, there were 6,452 hockey players registered with USA Hockey in New Jersey. By 1992-93, that number increased to 7,804.
After falling agonizingly short of a shot at the Cup in 1994, the Devils swept the Detroit Red Wings in 1995 in the Stanley Cup Final to claim the franchise’s first title.
While I don’t have statistics for 1993-94 or 1994-95, we can see the aftermath in the numbers for 1995-96.
The year immediately following the Devils’ first Stanley Cup, 10,515 players were registered. As the Devils improved, so did statistics. Between 1993 and 1996, hockey membership grew by nearly 35 percent, which far outpaced what Pittsburgh and Chicago were able to do for amateur hockey in Western Pennsylvania and Illinois, respectively.
The Devils continued to have on-ice success, winning divisional titles in each of the next three seasons. As New Jersey’s NHL team kept winning, so did local amateur hockey, growing from 10,515 in 1996 to 15,921 by 1999-2000, another 51 percent pickup over that four-year span.
With such tremendous growth between Stanley Cups, there was less room to keep growing. Despite plenty of rinks and opportunities to play, a game like hockey isn’t going to grow in 50-percent increments every four years in any given locality.
After the Devils won in 2000, membership kept moving forward, increasing from 15,921 to 16,622 in 2000-01, a modest 4 percent boost. It was the second Cup in five years, with a whole bunch of success in between. There is nothing that can replicate the euphoria of a first title, especially not if the second one comes within five years, not that the local fans will complain at all.
By 2003, growth had begun to stagnate in the state of New Jersey. A loss in the 2000-01 Cup Final to the Colorado Avalanche had little effect as membership grew by a measly 28 players in 2001-02. In 2002-03, New Jersey’s hockey membership grew by just one player. It was about to get worse, too.
The third and final Stanley Cup came in 2003 and by then the magic of the Stanley Cup Effect had long worn off.
Coming out the 2002-03 season and the economy beginning to turn for the worse, New Jersey’s membership slipped to 16,207 in 2003-04. The following season, membership dropped by nearly 1,000 players. By 2005-06, New Jersey’s hockey-playing population dipped to its lowest point in nearly 10 years as it sat at 14,508.
Membership rallied in a big way in 2006-07, as it spiked somewhat inexplicably back up to over 16,000. Between 2006-07 and 2010-11, membership fluctuated, but never dipped below 16,000. In 2010-11, the state of New Jersey had a record high of 17,292 registered hockey players statewide with the biggest gains being made in adult hockey and the youngest levels of youth hockey, with a 25 percent increase among players aged 8 and younger.
The hot-off-the-presses numbers are in for 2011-12, and it was another year of growth for New Jersey. Just this past season, 17,819 people were registered by USA Hockey statewide, another record high coming off of a modest 3 percent increase in membership.
Coming off of back-to-back seasons of growth, it is difficult to see a dramatic increase in membership coming out of a potential Stanley Cup victory for the Devils, but it is not out of the question. The people at the grassroots level have done a great job of rebuilding after years of decline in hockey membership.
As the economy continues to improve, the success of the Devils could be a spark for growth in the Garden State. Being nine years removed from the last Stanley Cup, there is a pretty significant new generation of fans to captivate and potential youth hockey players to influence.
While it is more likely to see a substantial growth spurt coming in California, especially if the Kings bring home LA’s first Stanley Cup, the Devils should play a key role in keeping the game moving forward in their home state.
There’s no question the on-ice success of the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, which each also have a fair amount of fans in New Jersey, will help play a role, but it is the Devils that drive the bus in terms of generating the highest level of interest and attracting new fans locally.
Having experienced 177 percent growth since 1990-91, the state of New Jersey is another great example of what can happen when the local team has success. That success, however, would be next to meaningless if it wasn’t combined with a dedicated group of volunteers and coaches ready to mobilize and make the game available to an interested public. The good people of New Jersey are lucky to have had a team that has brought home three Stanley Cups with a chance to grab a fourth and the right people to guide the game to this tremendous growth.
The future of amateur hockey remains bright in New Jersey, with or without the Cup, but winning a fourth couldn’t hurt, right?
All membership statistics courtesy of USA Hockey. You can check out the numbers for yourself from 2002-03 to today right here.
Coming Soon on USofH: A look at another year of membership growth nationally for USA Hockey in 2011-12. Also, another Stanley Cup-related post is on the way, looking at how hockey’s growth in California and New Jersey is helping local players reach the upper levels of hockey.