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Now's the time to hit the ice

'Hockey Weekend Across America' gives everyone chance to play

NHL.com @NHL

The "Hockey Weekend Across America" initiative begins Friday, and Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey, said it's a fun time for the sport in that country. 

Appearing Wednesday on "Stellick & Simmer in the Morning" on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio, Smith told hosts Gord Stellick and Rob Simpson about a tweet he recently saw that mentioned the leading scorers in the NHL, American Hockey League, ECHL, Ontario Hockey League and United States Hockey League all were American-born players.

Patrick Kane (born in Buffalo) of the Chicago Blackhawks leads the NHL, Chris Bourque (Boston) of the Hershey Bears leads the AHL, Chad Costello (Johnstown, Iowa) of the Allen Americans leads the ECHL, Kevin Labanc (New York) of the Erie Otters leads the OHL, and Rem Pitlick (Plymouth, Minn.) of the Muskegon Lumberjacks leads the USHL. 

"It says something about where we're going and what we're trying to do," Smith said. 

The weekend events culminate Sunday with Hockey Day in America, when a tripleheader of NHL games includes the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC). 

Blackhawks forward Kane leads the NHL with 83 points. It wouldn't be surprising if more than a few kids and adults across the country are sporting his sweater Friday, when the weekend kicks off with "Wear Your Favorite Jersey Day." 

The idea behind Hockey Weekend Across America, the 6-year-old initiative of USA Hockey, is to begin the process of exposing the game to a new crowd and generation. 

"I'm hoping everybody [who] didn't have the slightest interest and never even tried hockey, maybe in some non-traditional markets, get out there and they're going to see other kids in school or maybe the boss at work has a jersey on," Smith said. "They might ask the question, 'Well, what are you doing?' and he says, 'Come out to the rink tomorrow, because we have over 300 rinks in 45 states on Saturday opening doors for thousands and thousands of people to try it.'" 

"Try Hockey Day" on Saturday will allow neophytes to experience the game for the first time, with Smith hoping they'll gravitate toward one of USA Hockey's Learn to Play programs, whether at the youth or adult level. Participating rinks can be found at TryHockeyForFree.com

"Celebrate Local Hockey Heroes" on Sunday encourages community involvement by having successful hockey figures talk about their experiences and allowing fans to post pictures on USA Hockey's Facebook and Twitter pages. 

On the ice Sunday, the Stadium Series game with the Wild and Blackhawks is sandwiched between two other nationally televised games, with the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at First Niagara Center (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and the Detroit Red Wings playing the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN). 

Three other games played Sunday will be available on NHL.TV: the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Carolina Hurricanes, the Calgary Flames at the Anaheim Ducks, and the Colorado Avalanche at the Vancouver Canucks. 

The Avalanche host the Red Wings in a 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game at Coors Field on Feb. 27. 

"This is a great weekend for anyone who's watched the game and said, 'Maybe I'll give that a try,'" Smith said "This is the weekend to do it, and we're ready for them, and we're hoping we have great success." 

Smith, unanimously elected USA Hockey president in June 2015 after Ron DeGregorio served 12 years in the position, mentioned strides USA Hockey has taken during the past decade to improve participation. It started with putting hockey into non-traditional markets and revamping the American youth-hockey development model in order to get children to stay in the game. 

"The retention rate was going in the wrong direction," Smith said. "Kids were getting frustrated, so we went away from the trophy-based mentality, which lots of youth sports were using for a long time … and went to three basic concepts. 

"No. 1 -- and it's not just for the player, but for the player, the coach, the ref, the parent, the fan, the adult player, anyone playing the game -- is to have fun. No. 2, to keep them in a safe environment, not just on the ice with the rink and the arena and the rules we set, but off the ice; and the third thing is to allow skill development to flourish. 

"We went back to particularly younger age groups. Kids like playing something they enjoy doing, and if they're good at it, if they like it, they stay even longer. So we went to more skill-based practices, more station-based practices, and those things put together increased the fun, safety and enjoyment people get out of the game." 

There are record registrations among adults and the women's program is flourishing, and Smith mentioned the fact USA Hockey's outreach has included all levels and abilities. The Paralympic sled hockey team won consecutive Olympic gold medals in Vancouver (2010) and Sochi (2014); the group Courage USA has brought hockey to vision-impaired players; and a new discipline known as Warrior Hockey is allowing wounded vets returning from combat to play the game they love.

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