U.S. hockey growth showing up on NHL rosters
Hockey is — and has always been — Canada’s game, but the country’s grip on the most coveted playing positions in the sport has never been more tenuous.
Last season marked the first in NHL history that more than half of the players were not born in Canada. Canadian-born players at the start of this season still made up 48.2 percent of the league, but that figure marked the continuation of a downward trend. Meanwhile, U.S. players accounted for 23.6 percent of players on opening-week rosters, a new high-water mark.
With fewer Canadians and more Americans playing in the NHL than ever, will the NHL soon be a predominantly American league?
“It’s a lofty goal,” said Jim Johannson, executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. “The part we’re excited about is you’re seeing more and more of our players come in from a wide variety of programs, backgrounds and geographic parts of the country.”
Since the 1998-99 season, USA Hockey has seen player participation climb by 28.8 percent to more than 540,000 (see chart). While Hockey Canada boasts about 90,000 more player members today, the U.S. is closing the gap, and with a population nearly nine times the size of Canada, it has a much larger pool to draw from. The NHL’s expansion into non-traditional hockey markets spearheaded by Commissioner Gary Bettman during the 1990s has helped tap into that potential.
|Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who grew up in Arizona, is an example of geographic diversity in the game.
Top overall draft pick Auston Matthews, who grew up in Arizona, has brought the emergence of non-traditional hockey markets into the spotlight. He was born in 1997, just following the Coyotes’ inaugural season in Phoenix, and is the first high-profile product of the boom in local hockey participation that coincided with the franchise’s relocation from Winnipeg. USA Hockey registration in Arizona has more than doubled since 1998-99, from 3,382 registered players to 7,510 last season.
California, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee, all of which gained at least one NHL team during the ’90s, have seen increases in registration more than twice the national rate during that same period.
“A big reason is because the NHL moved there,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, a Massachusetts native with ties to USA Hockey. “That’s what attracts kids to the game. They watch the game on TV, they go to the NHL games and watch them live and they fall in love with the game. Then the respective NHL teams have their own grassroots initiatives to try to reach out to the local public to try to promote the game.”
States of the Game
USA Hockey player participation in the nine states that have become home to an NHL franchise since the conclusion of the 1991-92 season (including Nevada) increased 88 percent from the 1998-99 season through the end of the 2015-16 season. The other nine states, plus Washington, D.C., that already had a team saw participation increase 19 percent during that span. The remaining 32 states saw a combined increase of 31 percent.
|32 non-NHL states||108,452||118,657||141,784||+31%|
|NHL franchise states in 1991^||272,063||284,529||324,121||+19%|
* The Atlanta Thrashers began play in 1999 and moved to Winnipeg in 2011.
** The Vegas Golden Knights are scheduled to begin play this fall.
^ The nine states — California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — that were home to an NHL franchise during the 1991-92 season, plus Washington, D.C.
Source: SBJ analysis of USA Hockey data
The efforts of NHL teams, particularly those in newer markets, to grow the game gained steam with the NHL’s most recent collective-bargaining agreement, which included the creation of the Industry Growth Fund. That money — up to $60 million per year — is earmarked for leaguewide and club-specific projects aimed at long-term revenue generation. The primary focus of IGF-funded projects thus far has been growing the game at the youth level.
Jay Feaster, Tampa Bay Lightning executive director of community hockey development who’s also a two-time NHL general manager, called it “a game-changer,” noting that the bulk of the team’s multifaceted Build the Thunder campaign to increase local participation is funded by the IGF. The team plans to distribute 100,000 team-branded street hockey sticks and balls, offer 10,000 hours of hockey training and grow the number of registered USA Hockey players in the region by 1,000 over a five-year period that began last season.
“Once you get them playing, they’re going to continue to play,” Feaster said. “That’s the kind of critical mass that you need in order to ever reach that point where you have more or the same number of U.S.-born kids playing in the NHL as you do Canadians.”
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that 21 clubs have applied for IGF funds, and all of them have received some amount of funding. The fund has allocated $40 million for club initiatives over five years, including $15 million for rink development, $10 million for ball/street hockey and $5 million for youth hockey diversity and inclusion programs.
As participation has increased across the country, so has the viability of a U.S.-based pathway to the NHL. While Canadian junior hockey was once seen as the only realistic route to the pros for young North American players, NCAA hockey has developed into a much more realistic alternative. College Hockey Inc. reports that NCAA hockey alumni accounted for 33 percent of players making their NHL debuts in 2015-16, including three of the top six rookie scorers.
“There’s a higher percentage of players, it seems, every year that are coming through college hockey that are ultimately playing at a high level, whether it be the NHL or the AHL or leagues of that nature,” the Penguins’ Sullivan said. Twelve of the 24 Penguins players whose names were engraved on the Stanley Cup alongside Sullivan’s last season played in college before going pro.
The viability of college hockey as a career move has in turn bolstered the United States Hockey League, a domestic junior league. Unlike those who join a Canadian junior hockey league in which players are paid, USHL players maintain their NCAA eligibility.
“As a kid, you have that option to get your degree, play high-level hockey and still make the NHL,” explained Stan Bowman, Chicago Blackhawks senior vice president and general manager.
Even with the positive momentum, the U.S. faces several challenges in continuing to expand hockey’s reach, including a dearth of facilities. Data from the International Ice Hockey Federation, the sport’s international governing body, shows there are about 1,800 indoor ice rinks and 1,000 outdoor rinks in the U.S., compared to 3,250 and 5,000, respectively, in Canada.
“To a degree, our growth is always going to be in conjunction with our facilities,” USA Hockey’s Johannson said. “In huge parts of the country, there’s not an hour of open ice between 3 and 10 or 11 o’clock at night.”
Johannson noted that a good number of NHL teams have gotten involved in building rinks in their communities, and most teams that build new practice facilities open them to the public. In addition, Feaster pointed to more privately funded rinks being built in the Tampa area as the game’s popularity increases.
Coaching also has the potential to be a limiting factor in the development of elite American talent. Sullivan, Bowman and Feaster all lauded USA Hockey’s efforts to improve coaching at the youth and developmental levels, but said there is still work to be done.
“It takes maturity from some of the non-traditional markets that are starting to emerge in the United States,” Sullivan said. “With maturity comes a more informed coach, better training, better development.”
Still, asked to gaze into their crystal balls, folks at the NHL level can imagine the U.S. becoming the primary producer of elite talent.
“I’m sure some of the other countries — Sweden, Russia and Canada — would have something to say about that,” Bowman said. “But the U.S. has a large population, and if things continue to go this way, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them take over.”
Alex Silverman is a writer for SportsBusiness Daily.