NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stressed the importance of youth hockey during a summit with the commissioners of the other three major sports -- Rob Manfred of Major League Baseball, Roger Goodell of the National Football League and Adam Silver of the National Basketball Association.
Bettman said Tuesday that the amount of young players registering to play hockey has allowed the sport to grow in traditional and non-traditional markets. With the NHL more visible and its games more accessible across North America, children have become more enthusiastic about playing hockey at an early age.
According to USA Hockey, a record 555,175 players (including a record 115,694 players at the 8-and-under level) registered to play last season. The record-setting number of players also includes a record 180,400 adults, a 14th consecutive year of growth.
"We've never seen more youth participation than we're having now," Commissioner Bettman said during "Gamechangers: Creating the Future of Sports" at The Paley Center for Media in New York. "The registrations of hockey players, young players with USA Hockey is at an all-time high. They say for every player, you get 3.1 fans, and our fan base continues to grow. We played at 95 percent of capacity in the regular season, more than 100 percent of capacity in the playoffs, a testament to standing room, that's how you do that. But we have enormous opportunities.
"Historically we have been underserved by traditional media, and HDTV and all the digital platforms and social media for us represents an opportunity where we haven't been as well served as the other three sports in terms of national media."
Commissioner Bettman also stressed that without having the Arizona Coyotes in the NHL, a player such as Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews might have taken a different career path. Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, won the Calder Trophy last season as the League's top rookie. The 19-year-old led the Maple Leafs with 69 points (40 goals, 29 assists) in 82 games.
Video: Bettman discusses new media, exposure for NHL
The NHL put a franchise in Arizona in 1996, when the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix. The Coyotes moved to Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, during the 2003-04 season but are trying to secure a new arena. They are committed, as is the League, to keeping the team in that market.
"People make fun of us because we fight to preserve a franchise in Arizona, of all places," Commissioner Bettman said. "But one of the stars for the ages who just played his first year for the Toronto Maple Leafs came from Scottsdale, Arizona. He will tell you that if wasn't for the fact that his uncle as a 4-year-old took him to a Coyotes game, he probably would have never played hockey. So we think we have an enormous opportunity to continue to grow."
The NHL made headlines in June 2016 when it awarded an expansion franchise to Las Vegas, becoming the first professional league to enter that city. The Vegas Golden Knights will play their inaugural season in 2017-18.
Commissioner Bettman also raved about the NHL's partnership with NBC, which has provided the capability to show multiple Stanley Cup Playoff games nationally at the same time across several of its networks.
"This is the first national TV contract in the United States where all of the games of the [Stanley Cup] playoffs are on national television," Commissioner Bettman said. "We never had that before, which is one of the reasons I think in terms of the size of our audience has always been impacted by underexposure, coupled with the fact that if you look at our footprint going back to as late at the mid-60s, we were in four U.S. cities.
"Obviously now with 31 teams, a new team in Las Vegas, our footprint is broader than it's ever been. But we have a great opportunity to grow in places and in ways that we've never been able to do it before because we're getting more exposure in more places."