Watch it. Play it. Live it.
That's the message NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated in his opening remarks during a media conference call Thursday when defining Hockey Weekend Across America.
The nationwide initiative, created by USA Hockey in 2008 to engage the hockey community in celebrating hockey at all levels and exposing the sport to new fans, is slated for this weekend.
"Watch it … we're on pace to attract more than 20 million fans to our arenas for the 10th consecutive season and 22 of our clubs are even with or ahead of last season's attendance while television viewership numbers are increasingly strong," Bettman said. "Play it … the number of American players age 8 and under has surpassed 100,000, and that's a huge accomplishment and paints an extraordinarily bright picture for the future of our game.
"Live it … hockey fans are connecting to the game in ways people never imagined. The use of technology is unparalleled in our sport, especially since hockey fans tend to be very tech savvy. So fans are living the game as well."
Additionally, USA Hockey will make good use of the weekend to educate and demonstrate to the national public what the American Developmental Model (ADM) is all about.
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, however, particularly when you consider youth baseball players compete on an appropriately-sized Little League diamond, football shrinks its playing field, soccer uses a smaller ball and field and basketball has lowered the rim as much as two feet.
The ADM model, or USA Hockey's Red, White and Blue Hockey program, promotes the implementation of cross-ice practices and games for youth hockey. The results have been promising as it has raised the level of creativity among players, increased player participation and has created a positive environment for youth players to learn and play.
"We view this as a revolutionary model," Bettman said. "USA Hockey developed a proven system for developing young athletes. The ADM will have the effect of increasing player participation, creating a positive environment for children to learn and play hockey without being so structured that we're choking kids off before they can really develop their skills to a level that would make them even better players."
Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, noted that the ADM will be featured all weekend long at Chicago's Millennium Park.
When the ice is sectioned, the better players improve since they're working in tighter spaces while being forced to make split-second decisions. Instead of capitalizing on a breakaway, they're honing their stick-handling and decision-making skills. The players who require more help also will get better because they're touching the puck more and are allowed to play alongside and learn from those players who might have a better skill set.
The model includes shrinking the ice surface during practices during which players split up and rotate throughout six different stations to hone a specific set of skills -- forward/backward transition, partner pass with movement, acceleration puck toss, tight space and agility skate. It enables everyone to be involved, and the more participation there is, the more likely those children will develop a passion for the game. Focusing on smaller areas allows kids more time with the puck and less time worrying about the technical aspects of the game such as positioning, staying in lanes or staying onside.
"We think it's an exciting development for hockey in this country," Bettman said. "We view the relationship with USA Hockey to not only be important, but vital. The more we do at the grass-roots level, the more players develop into NHL players. We are doing well, but we will achieve our goal of making this game even bigger, brighter and stronger than anyone ever imagined, particularly in the U.S."
"Over 20 percent of NHL rosters were American at the start of the season and we intend to keep that number rising," Ogrean said. "We have a national footprint today that we didn't have 20 years ago, and while not every [NHL] franchise may be selling out every game, we have hockey in so many parts of the country and that's been tremendous for us. 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."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale