Jim Watson was sitting in his office at Ice Works in Aston, Pa. He had the door ajar, and caught himself staring out into the ice rink’s lobby.
There were dozens of faces he had never seen before. Actually, hundreds. And it made him smile.
It was the middle of the latest tournament at Ice Works, one of the most thriving ice rinks in the Delaware Valley.
But there was something special about this tournament, which took place over President’s Day Weekend. This tournament had more than 100 teams at one ice rink with four sheets of ice.
The teams were from all over the Mid-Atlantic, not just the Philadelphia market. They were from Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and New York as well.
Watson just sat back and smiled.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Awesome, awesome, awesome. The growth of hockey in this area has been phenomenal and we are right in the middle of it.”
Watson, 60, was looking to build an ice rink in the Philadelphia area about 17 years ago. He considered several communities, both in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but he kept coming back to one particular area.
“We needed to build it in Delaware County,” he said. “There was no area where we found more people interested in the sport than in Delaware County. We knew if we built it here, it would be a success.”
So, in 1997, Ice Works in Aston was born with twin rinks.
Three years later, the interest was so great, Watson and his partners realized they needed to expand – so they built two more rinks onto the complex.
Now, 13 years later, the level of participation is beyond where Watson’s imagination ever took him.
“We’re quite proud of what’s happened here,” he said. “But it’s unbelievable how quickly this has happened.”
Watson was quick to credit the Philadelphia Flyers, the team he played for his entire 10-year NHL career, for building that interest in the Delaware Valley.
“The Flyers have given it great exposure because they are a top rate organization that promotes the game so well,” he said. “And that catches the eye of the young kids in their formidable years.”
That started, of course, with the teams Watson played for in the early 70s, when hockey exploded in the Philadelphia market.
Kids growing up in that area taught their kids the game, and subsequently, their children have grown up and passed it on to their kids.
“We’re nurturing new hockey talent every day,” Watson said. “But more importantly, we’re nurturing new hockey fans. That’s good for the Flyers because they all become Flyers fans. It’s a win/win situation for all of us.”
The more interesting thing though, is that it’s not just the kids. While there are hundreds of youth hockey teams in the area now, the growth of the adult recreational game has been even more mind-boggling.
“We have more than 50 men’s teams at Ice Works alone,” Watson said. “Now we have women’s leagues too. As a matter of fact, there’s now an independent high school league for girls in the Philadelphia area. That was just a dream as recently as 10 years ago, but it’s a reality now and it’s doing very well.”
So what is the draw? Why are kids flocking to hockey now as opposed to other sports.
“The kids are attracted to the speed, action and substance of the game,” Watson said. “But for the parents there is so much more. Hockey requires commitment and character.
“People just love the game and the players and the humility and gratefulness that shines through on T.V. They want their kids to be a part of that. It’s a sport that is overwhelmingly positive. What hockey does is it teaches more important lessons off ice than on ice. Kids learn about team play, commitment, dedication and leadership and those are all important ingredients we want our children have.”
As for the adult leagues, Watson thinks it’s the former players who get a jones to get back on the ice in a competitive environment.
“All the young kids that play hockey, they may stop in college or whatever, then after they get married and have kids they come back,” Watson said. “Kids I coached 15 years ago are back playing in adult leagues and that is the best thing of all. It means we’re having an impact and it’s not just a short-term impact but one that can last a lifetime.”
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37