WASHINGTON -- The National Hockey League and USA Hockey became partners several years ago in an effort to promote and grow the game from the grassroots level so it could climb the sports landscape in the United States.
Wednesday in Washington, D.C., leaders from the League and the sport's national governing body visited Capitol Hill to educate several political leaders on their initiatives and the game's growth and continued prosperity in the annual Congressional Hockey Caucus.
"It's an opportunity to bring attention to the fact that hockey is a great vehicle to give back to the community, to have young people build life skills, not just interest in hockey," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told NHL.com following the hour-long briefing at the Rayburn House Office Building, located across Independence Avenue from the Capitol Building.
In addition, the NHL and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund announced the first two recipients of the Hockey is For Everyone four-year academic scholarship, which guarantees $6,200 per year for each recipient to attend a four-year college or university provided they maintain a 3.0 grade-point-average.
Bettman said $250,000 has been raised for the scholarship fund thanks to a partnership with the Congressional Hockey Caucus. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis announced Tuesday that his team will donate $10,000 to the scholarship fund.
Bettman said this year's recipients, Richard Lucas of the Ed Snider Hockey Foundation in Philadelphia and Donald Shaw III of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club in Washington, D.C., are examples of the type of future leaders the NHL has been trying to build through its Hockey is For Everyone Program.
Lucas, 18, is a goalie who didn't start playing the game until 2009. He's going to Penn State University in the fall and will major in mechanical engineering.
Shaw, 17, is a forward/defenseman who has been with the Fort Dupont program since 2005. He's going to Elmira (N.Y.) College in the fall with the hopes of making the school's Division III junior-varsity hockey team. He wants to be a pilot in the Air Force.
"We've given out two scholarships for young people who are going to go on to higher education and have used hockey as the vehicle for this opportunity," Bettman said. "This is now an opportunity for each of these young recipients to further their education, and it's an opportunity they might not have otherwise had."
Prior to announcing the recipients of the scholarship fund, Bettman, USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean and Leonsis led a panel discussion on the state of hockey that mainly covered instructional developments and growth initiatives at the youth level.
The panel included the three members of the Congressional Hockey Caucus -- Lee Terry (R-Neb.), Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). They were joined by three representatives -- Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) and Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), who grew up in Buffalo with the fathers of Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane and San Jose Sharks forward Tim Kennedy.
"In the end, sports only matters when it transcends itself," Quigley told NHL.com. "Who wins a particular hockey game doesn't matter as much as the values that we get from it and how it helps kids and other people who need help.
"When the Hawks won the [Stanley] Cup, I was the one that gave the White House the idea of when they get the Cup, let's have a street hockey game on the South Lawn. Well, you saw the First Lady [Michelle Obama] playing. It sends messages."
Bettman spoke to the panel about the NHL's goal to continue to send those messages by making hockey inclusive to everyone no matter age, race, gender or sexual orientation. He gave details of the NHL's Hockey is For Everyone program and cited the fact that 161 American-born players were on NHL rosters on opening day of the 2012-13 season as one example of how the program is working.
Bettman also said that 45,000 people in 700 markets covering all 50 states have been introduced to hockey through Try Hockey For Free clinics, a joint venture between the NHL and USA Hockey that began in 2011.
"It's all about the game and our franchises giving back to the communities that we serve," Bettman said. "We're proud to do it."
Ogrean used a power-point presentation to outline the instructional developments USA Hockey has made for youth players over the past several years, most notably the American Development Model (ADM), a format the association developed in 2009 that provides age-appropriate guidelines and curriculum to hockey associations across the United States.
"We feel very confident that the next generation of players in the National Hockey League is going to be more and more and more populated by Americans," Ogrean said during his presentation. "We like where we are now, we like where the sport is, but we can never rest on our laurels and we just want to get better and better."
Leonsis spoke about how the Capitals have helped the sport grow in the Beltway region, particularly among children 10 and younger. He cited registration growth from that age group of 57 percent in Virginia and 76 percent in Maryland over the past five years.
He also said area high school hockey has grown from 60 teams and 1,500 players to 110 teams and 2,300 players.
"Embracing what is so important to our community starts with young people and I'm really pleased that locally in the last five years we've seen the most growth in youth registration for hockey right here in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia," Leonsis said. "We occupy two of the top three spots for national growth in children 10 and younger.
"Alex Ovechkin probably has a little something to do with it, as well."