The crowds were roaring at the United Center on a recent Sunday in March, but this time the cheering wasn’t for the Chicago Blackhawks. In conjunction with the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI), the Blackhawks hosted the 2015 Illinois State High School Hockey Championships, and the success of the event was yet another indication of the rapid growth of youth hockey in Illinois.
The event marked the 28th year that AHAI has hosted the state championships at the Blackhawks’ home rink, and the turnout was bigger than ever before. An on-ice photo shot following the games indicated just how much youth hockey has grown in the state.
Every attendee wearing their current youth hockey jersey was invited to meet at center ice for a picture; approximately 750 players posed around the Blackhawks logo for an impressive group shot.
This was the first year for the on-ice photo, and players from all over the state came to the championships, representing hundreds of youth teams in the state. With youth hockey participation in Illinois on the rise, it may only be a few years before the entire ice is filled with players.
AHAI and the Chicago Blackhawks make sure the High School Hockey Championships are as much about the fans as they are for the players. Blackhawks Youth Hockey Director Annie Camins said that hosting the championships is just another way for young hockey players to get inspired.
“Having the games played at the United Center and broadcasted live on Comcast SportsNet allows more fans access to the game, which helps us spread awareness about youth hockey in Illinois,” she said. “The impact the game has on these young fans will hopefully inspire them to play for their high school when they are older.”
According to data from AHAI, over the last 10 seasons the total number of players in the 8-and-under division has grown by 54 percent. Nationally, participation grew by 13 percent during the same period. AHAI saw especially large increases in participation in 2010-11 and 2013-14, the years after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup.
Having the Illinois High School Hockey Championships at the United Center makes it the premier event of the youth hockey season.
“All of the athletes playing in this game are ambassadors to every youth hockey player in the state,” said Blackhawks Youth Hockey Account Executive Matt Brooks. “We have created a dynamic environment at the championships that showcases just how far hockey has progressed in Illinois.”
Jim Smith, Treasurer of USA Hockey, can see that a lot has changed over his 28 years of chairing this event.
“When we started out at Chicago Stadium, we had to bring in volunteers to run the one game, and now we have TV crews and it’s a full gameday operation,” he said.
For most high school players, the state championship is the biggest game of their career thus far.
“From the moment the players’ bus arrives in the loading dock, their equipment gets unloaded and driven into the locker room, just like it does for the professionals,” Brooks said. “We try to give them as much of a pro day as we can.”
“For the high school players to be able to play on the same ice as the Blackhawks, it brings great exposure to the game of youth hockey and all that the Blackhawks have done for youth hockey players in Illinois,” Camins added.
Smith said both organizations spend endless hours planning all the small details for the championships.
“We want the championships to be something they remember for the rest of their lives. Win or lose, we want to make it as special as we can for the players and the fans.”