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Growth of sport in USA epitomized by Empire State

Thursday, 02.17.2011 / 9:00 AM / Hockey Weekend Across America

By John Manasso - NHL.com Correspondent

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Growth of sport in USA epitomized by Empire State
The Empire State has become a top producer of NHL talent
Ike Bogosian played college football. So did his brother.

His son, Zach, however, growing up in the small town of Massena, N.Y., just a few miles from the Canadian border, would never play a down in his life, passing up the family passion.

"Never even put football pads on in my life," Zach says.

Instead, Zach -- with the size, strength and speed of a linebacker -- became the No. 3 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. While hockey still has to battle for interest with football, baseball and basketball in the Empire State, there is no doubt that the number and quality of hockey players from New York is on the rise.

Gone are the days of the 1980s when brothers Joe and Brian Mullen from the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City were looked upon as novelties.

"What we're seeing is just more and more of a core of pretty solid players coming out of New York," said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations. "There is a good-to-deep impact in the game. The numbers are clearly are up and the impact of those players is clear."

"What we're seeing is just more and more of a core of pretty solid players coming out of New York. There is a good-to-deep impact in the game. The numbers are clearly are up and the impact of those players is clear"
-- Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations

When NHL rosters were set prior to the start of the season, more players had been from New York than in Russia (and that did not include San Francisco-born Brooks Orpik, whose hometown is the Buffalo suburb of Amherst). As of Feb. 11, 23 New York-born players were on NHL rosters and another 42 were non-roster players under NHL contracts, some of whom have played in the NHL at times this season like West Seneca's Chris Mueller, who has been up and down between Nashville and Milwaukee of the American Hockey League.

But it's not just the quantity that's on the rise, it's the quality. Five of the 23 members of the 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team were New Yorkers, including one of the best -- the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane (Buffalo), the NHL's No. 1 pick in 2007. That roster also failed to include Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard, of Ogdensburg, the current League leader in wins and a Calder Trophy finalist in 2010.

The five Olympian New Yorkers is up from a total of zero on the legendary 1980 U.S. Olympic squad, which, incidentally, won gold in Lake Placid, N.Y.

These are just more examples of the growth of the game in the United States during the past two decades, a fact that USA Hockey is celebrating with its Hockey Weekend Across America initiative this weekend.

While players and USA Hockey officials have a hard time pinpointing the exact reason for the growth --climate, proximity to Canada, the building of more rinks, being the home of three NHL teams, five AHL franchises and a host of NCAA teams are some of the reasons offered -- there is no doubting the number and impact of players is on the rise.

Joe Baudo, the president of the New York State Amateur Hockey Association's board of directors, said that the number of players has held steady even through a difficult economic climate in recent years. Some players have had to quit, he said, because of the cost.

However, during the 30 years he has been involved with the sport, he has seen the growth. Overall the state does have more rinks, he says, though not as many as everyone would like to have with ice available at the best possible times -- which seems to be a complaint wherever hockey is played.

"We just try to keep recruiting kids," said Baudo, who is based in the Buffalo area. "Once we get them on the ice, they're usually hooked."

Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay spent decades in the Buffalo area as a player, coach and member of the front office. Three of his sons played youth hockey in the area. Ramsay fondly remembers when his 9-year-old son Travis won a youth tournament in Amherst for the first time in the 1980s.

"So it was a battle for ice time all the time, but you have some success when you have players like the Marchant boy (Anaheim's Todd, a veteran of 18 NHL seasons) get in the League and play for a long time...  I mean, there's a lot of guys who had a chance who came up and played from the area -- it does pick up interest," Ramsay said. "...  I know my oldest boy Travis, their team won the Amherst tournament for the first time ever. They hosted the tournament for a long time but it was one of those ones where you invite good teams and expect to win it and they actually won it. This was a huge event. 'We're getting somewhere' and you can see it was moving things forward. There was a great enthusiasm in the area."

How players develop varies from region to region. New York Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy is one of a number of players to come out of Long Island, including Olympian Mike Komisarek and two-time 20-goal scorer Chris Higgins.

Gilroy said almost all of the Long Island players have worked with a Russian-Lithuanian coach named Aleksey Nikiforov, who coaches the Suffolk PAL Squirt AAA team. Gilroy holds Nikiforov almost single-handedly responsible for his becoming an NHL player.

He said Nikiforov teaches a European style of hockey in which he emphasizes speed, puck possession and puck movement. As a teenager, Gilroy left Long Island for a junior team in Walpole, Mass., and ended up attending Boston University.

"See, when I was little you'd have to leave Long Island to play but now I think it's more competitive and you can stay over time," said Gilroy, 26. "We used to travel to Jersey to play when I was like 13. The hockey wasn't too strong on Long Island. Now the competition is really good."

Where Bogosian and Howard grew up -- about 40 minutes from each other but almost 400 miles away from Gilroy -- they stuck with the established local minor programs for a while, even if, in Bogosian's case, it was a B-level team.

Eventually, both played some junior hockey on the north side of the St. Lawrence River, although neither played AAA hockey. At 15, Bogosian left for a private school in Massachusetts and then juniors in the Ontario Hockey League. Howard, meanwhile, moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the U.S. National Team Development Program.

"Zach and I -- to go play in Syracuse -- you had to go through two snow belts, so it could take you three days to get home," Howard said. "That's why I never I got to play AAA or AA or whatever it was because it was too far away."

In larger population areas in upstate New York, like Buffalo and Rochester, the leagues are a bit more established, even if the route taken is not. Some players -- like Rochester's Ryan Callahan -- opt for local junior teams and then the OHL.

Elite ones like Kane go to the NTDP. The Phoenix Coyotes' Lee Stempniak played in a local junior league and then went to Dartmouth. Brian and Stephen Gionta, also Rochester products, came through Boston College.

"Gionta's kind of funny," Ramsay said. "He played for, I believe the Niagara Scenics team, and my son was not quite that good for that, but my wife came home one night and said, 'There's this really good player on this team. He's really good.' 'Oh, yeah, how big is he?' 'Oh, I don't know, he's just 5-foot-4 or whatever.' But I said, 'That's not very likely.'

"He's become a top player. It's just another great example of looking for talent and understanding that anybody can play if they have the courage and desire to make it happen."
Quote of the Day

It's pretty crazy, but believe me when I say we didn't draft these players with the mindset we had to because they had good hockey-playing dads. It just turned out that way. But we're certainly glad they're a part of our organization.

— Arizona Coyotes director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt regarding the coincidence that six of the organization's top prospects are sons of former NHL players