Growing the game
Nick Gardella's dad, Rick, a former small-college hockey player in Maine, took him to a Florida Panthers game when he was six and a love affair with the sport was born.
Nick has become an accomplished hockey player -- he was chosen for one of USA Hockey's Select regional teams last summer -- and now he's planning on going to prep school to try to make himself more attractive to college and junior-hockey teams.
Tommy DiMaio, 14, lives 10 minutes from the Office Depot Center in Sunrise, Fla., and has been playing hockey since he was three. Last year, his team, the South Florida Golden Wolves won the USA Hockey Tier II Under-12 National Championship in Philadelphia, the first team from that far south to prevail in a national championship. To get there, the Golden Wolves had to beat the Coral Springs, Fla., Coyotes, Tommy's old team, in the regionals at Bowie, Md. It's ironic that two Florida teams had to travel that far to face each other. Just 10 years ago, such a meeting would've been unthinkable.
One thing is true about hockey in North America, the further north you go the tougher it is to win, but DiMaio's teams, coached by Scott Sandler, Jeff Grade, and Steve Lynch have won the Silver Sticks Tournament in Sarnia, Ontario, and the Prospects Tournament in Boston. Tommy was the youngest player picked last summer for one of the Hockey Night in Boston teams.
DiMaio's always been a Panthers fanatic and goes to every game he can. Many of his teammates' parents are season-ticket holders and, hey, when there's an extra ticket, Tom's house is on the way.
Neither Nick nor Tom believes an NHL career is out of the question. It's a goal these Floridians are pursuing.
A decade ago, the idea of Florida, Texas, Arizona or Tennessee producing junior and college hockey players -- perhaps even an NHL professional -- was beyond a joke, it was off the chart. Not that there weren't jokes: "The whole team drowned at spring training, etc."
Sure, Brian Leetch was born in Texas, Dan Hinote in Florida, Willi Plett in Paraguay, Rumun Ndur in Nigeria and Byron Dafoe in England, but they all moved at young ages to established, northern ice-hockey centers.
Hockey is growing in popularity throughout the United States, not just in the "Snow Belt" states of the North and West, and the NHL's expansion in the past decade has been one of the most important driving forces behind that growth. In fact, some of the most impressive growth has occurred in those areas where NHL hockey has been introduced in the past decade.
High-school hockey championships and all-star games are being played at NHL rinks in Los Angeles, Nashville, Phoenix, Florida and Dallas as hockey-playing interest grows among the young fans and their families throughout the American Southland. Youth hockey teams play regular-season and championships at NHL rinks and short exhibitions showcasing our youngest players are popular intermission features. Such events create lasting memories.
"We've played several championship games at the Office Depot Center," DiMaio said. "At our Thanksgiving tournament, we used the Panthers locker room and then they came in and played that night. We got to stay and watch them play the Penguins. We tried to sneak into the Penguins dressing room to get autographs but the guards down here, once they see you, you're done."
The NHL and its member teams support a variety of League programs as well as individual efforts by the teams. The Los Angeles Kings, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lighting, Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes all maintain close relations with youth-hockey organizations in their area and participate in such NHL programs as NHL Street, which teaches hockey fundamentals at no cost to children 6-to-16. The NHL and its partners have donated millions of dollars of equipment and instruction materials to recreation centers and schools. The program is "delivered" locally by NHL teams.
NHL Breakout is the League's official street and inline hockey tournament and outdoor hockey festival, a traveling show coming to your town soon. The results of last summer's championship are available at http://nhl.com/laceemup/breakout/breakout2002/ri_finals_story.html.
"The NHL delivers a variety of grass-roots hockey programming to youth -- from NHL Street, a street-hockey program targeted towards kids who have never held a hockey stick -- to the NHL Hockey Rules Ice and Inline Hockey Tour, a series of hockey tournaments focusing on the advanced youth-hockey player," said Alysse Soll, NHL Enterprises vice-president of fan development. "The NHL's participatory programs alone actively reach over 300,000 youth annually, in NHL team markets and beyond."
The Hockey Rules Ice and Inline Hockey Tour will visit 19 cities this season. It has already made stops in Raleigh, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, South Florida and Los Angeles as well as in many northern cities. The Tour returns to Phoenix on Feb. 7-9; then stops in Tampa Bay, Feb. 14-17; Dallas, Mar. 7-9; and back to Tampa Bay on Apr. 25-27. The schedule is available at http://nhl.com/laceemup/hockeyrules/sked.html
"The NHL delivers grass-roots programming which member clubs adapt to suit their local marketing and programming efforts," Soll said. "We act as a resource for member clubs, delivering programming that they would do on their own if they had the time and resources."
NHL Diversity is a not-for-profit program designed to introduce children of diverse ethnic backgrounds to hockey. Disney GOALS in Anaheim, Calif., and the Metro Atlanta Hockey Association are the southernmost of the 28 associations nationwide which send children each year to participate in the Willie O'Ree All-Star Game which is being held in St. Paul, Minn., this year. It was held in Tampa, Fla., two years ago. O'Ree, a former member of the Boston Bruins, was the first black player in the NHL. More than a dozen minority members of NHL teams participate in NHL Diversity programs, including Mighty Ducks of Anaheim goalie Jamie Storr, who is of Japanese descent.
Youth hockey registrations are up in every state where the NHL has set up shop in the past 10 years. Texas and North Carolina have seen 9 percent growth this year, while Florida is up 13 percent and Arizona registrations have increased 14 percent. Georgia has 20 percent more youth-hockey players and registrations in Tennessee have increased 67 percent.
"There's a logical connection between the presence of an NHL team and an interest to play the sport on the part of kids in that area," said Chuck Menke, USA Hockey director of media and public relations.