Calling all USA Hockey fans!
If you possess a jersey of your favorite American-born player or team, consider donning the old replica on Friday when Hockey Weekend Across America kicks off a three-day celebration of the sport throughout the United States.
"Hockey Weekend Across America is one of the marquee events on the calendar each year," USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said. "This year will be unique as we'll celebrate Hockey Weekend Across America the weekend immediately following the conclusion of the Olympic Winter Games."
The nationwide initiative was created by USA Hockey in 2008 to engage the hockey community in celebrating hockey at all levels and exposing the sport to new fans. Each of the three days associated with event has a theme, including "Wear Your Favorite Jersey Day" presented by ShopUSAHockey.com on Friday, "Try Hockey Day" presented by the NHL on Saturday, and "Celebrate Local Hockey Heroes" on Sunday.
Although he was born in Brantford, Ontario, Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky has seen the tremendous growth of hockey in the United States.
"There's no question it has progressed and gotten bigger and better throughout this country," Gretzky said. "I think you can trace it all the way back to 1980 and the U.S. Olympic gold, and the excitement that the country felt for guys like Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig."
"I was lucky that when I went to L.A., we had [Steve] Yzerman in Detroit, we had Mario [Lemieux] in Pittsburgh, we had Brett Hull doing what he did in St. Louis, and of course then [Mark] Messier going into New York," Gretzky said. "In each part of the country, there were guys people wanted to go watch and see play. Just as important, those guys were really good in promoting our game and selling our game, so we got a really nice springboard there."
The top three states in which hockey grew the most by percentage in 2012-13 were Oregon (up 52 percent from 2011-12), Washington, D.C. (11 percent) and Idaho (10 percent). The top five states by hockey participation in 2012-13 were Minnesota (53,935), Michigan (51,929), New York (48,544), Massachusetts (46,716) and Pennsylvania (30,314).
On Saturday, the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series resumes at Soldier Field in Chicago when the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks host the Pittsburgh Penguins (8 p.m. ET, NBC), marking the first professional hockey game to be played at the home turf of the National Football League's Chicago Bears.
This is the fourth and final game in the Stadium Series, and the second time the Blackhawks have hosted an outdoor game following the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field against the Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins will be participating in their third regular-season outdoor NHL game, following the 2008 and 2011 Winter Classics.
The game will feature several American-born stars, including Chicago's Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Brandon Bollig, Ben Smith and Nick Leddy, and Pittsburgh's Brandon Sutter, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi.
USA Hockey will be making good use of the weekend to educate and demonstrate to the national public what the American Development Model (ADM) is all about. There will be hundreds of rinks nationwide hosting "Try Hockey for Free" clinics that will allow children to experience hockey for the first time. To find a participating rink and register, visit TryHockeyforFree.com.
Prior to the widespread integration of the ADM by USA Hockey in January 2009, hockey was the only major sport that didn't shrink its playing surface to match the age group. A change was in order, particularly when you consider youth baseball players compete on an appropriately sized Little League diamond, soccer uses a smaller ball and smaller field and basketball has always lowered the rim.
"We want to get more kids on the ice to play, teach them how to play better and get them to love the game and play it longer," Ogrean said. "Hockey in America is growing and getting better. We're interested in having more Americans in the NHL; almost 80 percent of the clubs in the NHL are from the U.S. Our relationship with the League is better than it's ever been. The growth has been great."
The ADM model or USA Hockey's Red, White and Blue Hockey program promotes the implementation of cross-ice practices and games into youth hockey. The results have been promising as it has raised the level of creativity among players, increased player participation and created a positive environment for youth to learn and play.
"Everything an athlete in another sport is asked to do, we ask our athletes to do on a piece of steel about an eighth-of-an-inch wide," Calgary Flames president of hockey operations and general manager Brian Burke said. "This is the way forward, this is not a shot in the dark. We studied how they developed players in Europe, in Sweden and Finland, and put this [ADM] program together. A ton of research went into this and the goal is to get as many kids on the ice and enjoy the game."
The ADM model includes shrinking the ice surface during practices when players split up and rotate through six different stations to hone a specific set of skills. It enables everyone to get involved and the more participation, the more likely those children will develop a passion for the game.
The ADM clinic will be featured in more than 400 rinks throughout the country. In the Los Angeles area, eight rinks will host "Try Hockey For Free" for children between the ages of 4 and 9 years old.
"We have a national footprint today that we didn't have 20 years ago, and while not every franchise may be selling out every game, we have hockey in so many parts of the country and that's been tremendous for us," Ogrean said. "It's become more a national game than ever before. When NHL clubs are planted, they create interest in the game and USA Hockey has the infrastructure to capitalize on that."
USA Hockey encourages everyone to get engaged in the celebration by sharing their experiences and photographs through the HWAA website at www.facebook.com/USAHockey.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
Sidebar - HOCKEY DAY IN AMERICA
Hockey Weekend Across America culminates with NBC's Hockey Day in America coverage on Sunday when the New York Rangers host the Boston Bruins in a battle between two "Original Six" rivals at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan (NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2) at 7 p.m. ET.
NBC's coverage for HDIA will include a "Try Hockey for Free" event at The Rinks at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Conn., during the day. There will be 14 NHL games in American cities being played during Hockey Weekend Across America.
Sunday NHL schedule in the United States:
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