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Ovechkin arrival key to hockey growth in D.C. region

by Corey Masisak

WASHINGTON -- On a balmy Sunday afternoon in Reston, Va., a couple dozen young hockey players are trying to wait patiently for the ice resurfacing machine to complete its duty. They're fidgety, anxious to get out on the ice.

This region's sporting culture long has been dominated by the professional football team, but at the same time these kids were bumping into each other and swaying in anticipation, that football team was slogging to the end of another disappointing season on the other side of the District of Columbia and these young athletes (and their parents) don't seem the least bit concerned.

Youth hockey has exploded in the D.C. region. The level of participation has increased because of several factors. The biggest was the arrival in America's capitol city of a Russian dynamo on skates who has altered the Washington Capitals' position in the marketplace and helped the growth of the sport in ways few probably could have imagined.

When Alex Ovechkin leads the Capitals against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park on Thursday, there will be hockey fans young and old in the baseball stadium who have embraced the sport and the franchise because of his presence.

"I think without a doubt, Alexander Ovechkin coming to the Washington Capitals has increased the amount of young hockey players in the area exponentially," said Dan Houck, Hockey Director for Team Maryland, one of two Tier I youth programs in the area. "I think he's had a tremendous impact."

There were fewer than 8,700 hockey players registered with USA Hockey in 1997-98 through the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, which is the region that covers Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. By 2011-12, the total was more than 19,000, according to registration totals provided by John Coleman, director of the PVAHA.

The increase has happened at all levels, including youth and adult hockey. Participation by young girls grew by more than 17 percent just last season. It hasn't all been Ovechkin, but he's played a part in some of the other factors as well.

Washington's rise to power in the NHL with former coach Bruce Boudreau, and the team's move into a new practice facility in Arlington, Va., were part of the impetus for a big spike. From 2008-09, the year after Boudreau arrived, Ovechkin scored 65 goals to win League MVP honors and the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five years, to 2011-12, the number of registered players younger than 8 years old increased by nearly 63 percent.

USA Hockey has focused much of its efforts to expand the sport in this country on kids at the youngest age levels. The Capitals, in their part to help hockey in the area, have done the same and the region has become one of the fastest-growing in the nation.

"I grew up telling people in fifth or sixth grade that was I going to hockey practice and the response was, 'What is that? Where on earth around here do you go to play that? Why do you not play football or baseball?'" Matt Flynn, Manager of Events and Marketing for the Capitals, said.

Flynn and Peter Robinson, who grew up in the region playing hockey, head up the Capitals' efforts to impact the growing youth hockey community in the area.

"'Are your parents Canadian?' That was one that I got a lot," said Robinson, the Capitals' Manager of Community Relations and Amateur Hockey.

"Now when you tell someone you play hockey and live in Reston, they ask, 'Which of the six rinks closest to you do you play in?' It is common knowledge now. You're not that weird kid who plays a sport no one else does. We really try to pump a lot of our efforts into the younger kids. There are the learn-to-play programs. In games you'll see Mites On Ice, which are the 7- and 8-year-olds, and the pre-game flag kids which are the next age group up. It's the little kids, trying to get them excited and keep them in the game, is where our efforts really go."

Everything changed for hockey in Washington because of a Ping-Pong ball. The Capitals had made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, but the team aged and slid backwards from that point.

Enter Ovechkin, whom the Capitals chose with the first pick in the 2004 NHL Draft after winning the lottery. That phrase proved literal in more ways than one.

Ovechkin quickly became one of the best players in the NHL. More than that, he was one of the most entertaining, one of the most gregarious. He was a marketing dream, and a sports superhero for kids in the region.

"There was definitely a spike with [Ovechkin]," Robinson said of youth hockey participation. "It was kind of this "Ovechkin Wave," as people have referred to it. There were all these kids in the first year or two after he joined the team that started playing hockey. There was a huge jump and it was all because of Alex. We've seen this giant wave progress through the age groups. You can tell when they started and that there was an Ovechkin effect."

Parents became fans and wanted their kids to play hockey. Kids became fans and told their parents they wanted skates for their birthday instead of cleats or the newest pair of Air Jordans.

"We have over 800 kids who play in our program," said Kevin Burch, president of the Reston Raiders hockey club and a coach in the program for 15 years. "It used to be that we would be able to fill our program, but after Alex's first or second year we were using waiting lists a day or two into the registration process. We've seen a huge interest in the Learn To Play program and that has continued. The desire to play definitely increased rapidly."

Olie Kolzig helped the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 and also is partly responsible for the growth of youth hockey in the area, particularly the number of quality goaltenders who grew up emulating him.

Five of the 14 players from the area playing NCAA hockey are goaltenders, including Miami (Ohio) junior Jay Williams, whose parents had season tickets while Kolzig was patrolling the crease for the Capitals.

"I think there was a lot of excitement [in 1998]," Kolzig said. "It probably led a lot of kids to say, 'Ooh, I want to be a hockey player.' We were on TV a lot and there was so much excitement.

"Anytime you have a player like Alex Ovechkin who makes hockey the coolest sport in town, he single-handedly probably had the biggest influence on growing youth hockey in the area. There's no doubt it has gotten even bigger since he came."

Kids who are 10 years old now were born the year Washington drafted Ovechkin. Multiple youth coaches in the area said the level of talent noticeably is better in the younger age groups than it was a decade ago.

More of them are probably going to want to play on the wing and jump into the glass after they score goals, too.

"When we bought the team and I could find the original plans, we wanted to focus on helping to grow the game with young people," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "We did that. We had lots of meetings with rink owners and managers. We had youth hockey coaches meeting with our coaches. We would recycle equipment and help fundraisers. We did a lot, but as the team got better and Alex exploded on the scene, all of a sudden it was, 'Hey, we've got a really, really great player right here.' All of a sudden you'd see all these kids wearing No. 8 jerseys at the arena."

During the 2006-07 season, before Ovechkin and the Capitals began their ascent to title contender status in the following seasons, the team moved into a new practice facility on top of a shopping mall. Kettler Capitals Iceplex provided a home base for the organization and the team, and the dividends have extended to youth hockey.

Eight stories up in Arlington, at the Ballston Common Mall, are two ice sheets, a Capitals team store, a large pro shop and a central hub for the Northern Virginia hockey community.

"I think Kettler did put it over the top because at the time there wasn't any ice inside the beltway and Kettler became such a draw for D.C. and Northern Virginia," Leonsis said. "It still is the world-class, cool rink in the area, but it also didn't draw away from other places' business. We kind of expanded the market. We sold a lot of ice here, but the success of the Caps and Alex has sort of driven the business for everyone in the area. We've been spiraling up and I think the numbers speak for themselves."

Before Kettler opened, the Capitals practiced at Piney Orchard in Odenton, Md., which is closer to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore than the National Mall. Before that, they practiced a tiny rink in Mount Vernon, Va.

Flynn, a Reston resident, worked part-time in the pro shop at Piney Orchard because the Capitals were there. His morning commute was often two hours because of the area's rush-hour traffic.

"That building is old. It was dark. It was out of the way. At the time it served its purpose," Flynn said. "Being here [at Kettler], it is metro accessible. It is close to where they’re playing [at Verizon Center]. The facilities are top notch. When we have an alumni player come back who used to be at those old places -- we just had [former Capitals goaltender] Al Jensen here -- he just goes, 'This is unbelievable. I'd have been in the Hall of Fame if we had facilities like this. We got dressed in a trailer [at Mount Vernon] and we had one exercise bike the whole team would share if anyone got up on time to use it.'"

All of Washington's practices at Kettler are open to the public. On a normal weekday there might be a couple hundred people sitting in the stands. On a weekend or school holiday, the main 1,200-seat rink is near capacity.

When the Capitals play the Philadelphia Flyers every other year at Kettler in a rookie game before the main training camp begins, fans have to show a free ticket to patronize a standing-room only rink.

Players like Mike Knuble, Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera have sons and daughters in the youth hockey program at Kettler and have helped out as coaches. Dan Jablonic, hockey director for the Washington Little Capitals, said Chimera was on the ice for a youth practice the morning after he broke his nose in a game earlier this season.

"I used to live downtown and we would drive out to Piney Orchard. It was about a 40-minute drive and it sort of seemed like you were away from everything," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "When we got to Kettler, we got a grade-A, top-of-the-line place to train and practice and develop as hockey players and as a team. It has really brought everybody to within probably a five-mile radius of Kettler. Now with the proximity to the rink, fans will see guys at the grocery store or walking down the street. You'll see them at the Whole Foods in Clarendon or the Apple Store. Everyone is really close now. It makes it feels like a community.

"For a kid, I don't think there is anything better. Kids here are exposed to the game and to their heroes. Every day they have a chance to go and see their favorite players and get an autograph or take a picture with them. I'll never forget some great advice I was given as a young player. It was to never underestimate what impact just one meeting with a young child can have on his or her life."

Jeff Halpern was the first locally raised and trained hockey player to reach the NHL. One of Kolzig's teammates with the Capitals, Mark Tinordi, had a son who spent plenty of time wandering around the Washington locker room as a kid, and Jarred Tinordi played for Team Maryland before becoming the region's first locally trained player to become a first-round NHL draft pick, when the Montreal Canadiens selected him with the 22nd pick of the 2010 NHL Draft.

William Nylander, currently playing for Sweden at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and a 2014 first-round pick (No. 8) by the Toronto Maple Leafs, played for Houck and Team Maryland while his father, Michael Nylander, spent four seasons with the Capitals.

The next locally trained first-round pick might be Graham McPhee. The son of former Washington general manager George McPhee, Graham plays with the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., after playing for Team Maryland and the famed Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota where Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews once roamed the halls. He's committed to play at Boston College beginning with the 2016-17 season.

Williams went undrafted after playing for the Reston Raiders and then in the United States Hockey League, but is currently a junior for Miami with a 12-2-0 record, a 1.66 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage for the No. 6 team in the country in both major NCAA polls.

Sam Anas, a sophomore forward at Quinnipiac, won the Tim Taylor Award as the NCAA rookie of the year as a freshman. He spent time with two area Tier I youth programs, the Little Capitals and Team Maryland, before going to college.

"I think hockey as a sport has grown, but there are a lot more programs dedicated to individual skill development," Burch said. "It used to be the local clubs kind of just did their thing, but there has definitely been an off-shoot of things like the kids who are out there [on the ice] with goalie training and specific skill development. The kids that have been coming into the game are more skilled because there is more opportunity. And in some cases, which is both good and bad, that it can be a year-round sport."

As the players who began playing hockey because of Ovechkin continue to matriculate, more elite players are sure to come from the D.C. region.

At the 2013 WJC the United States team had four players, Brandon Saad, John Gibson, J.T. Miller and Vincent Trocheck, from the Pittsburgh area, an outburst of hockey talent that part of the country had never seen before. All four were born late in 1992 or in 1993, months after Mario Lemieux had led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles.

Given the huge increase in hockey players in the D.C. region similar to the early 1990s boom in Pittsburgh, there might be days like that coming in this part of the country.

"I think people used to think, 'Oh, you've got to go away from here to be a hockey player,' but it is not like that anymore," Jablonic said. "We've got enough quality programs in the area, and couple that with the fact that we have the best schools in the country, why would want to send your kid away when you can play high-level hockey and go to the best schools? That alternative is being presented and people are starting to understand that now."

In other areas of the country, one of the impediments for growth is the cost of doing business in the sport. The Washington region is one of the most affluent in the nation, so that's not a problem for many of the kids here.

The issue is not finding kids to play hockey, but rather finding a place for them to play. Registration numbers have leveled off the past couple of seasons, but it's not that interest has waned, as the number of new players remains steady. There just aren't enough sheets of ice and time slots in the day to support another spike in participation.

"We definitely need more ice facilities in the area," Burch said. "We fill up our programs within a day and we're turning kids away. They're then going to one of the other facilities which are also maxed out. There are kids who want to play that can't because the resources are limited."

Burch said the Raiders are trying to work with the owners of SkateQuest in Reston to add a third sheet for the complex. The Capitals are involved with Fort Dupont, a rink in Washington, D.C., that is about to undertake an expansion process that will add a second sheet.

The interest, in part because of Ovechkin and the Capitals' involvement as well as USA Hockey's effort to grow the game through the American Development Model, has led to a surge in youth hockey in this area.

That has led to increases in lots of different ways. High school hockey has expanded incredibly. College hockey at the club level has expanded exponentially. Adult leagues are booming.

"I was at the Maryland prep championship game last year, and one of the league commissioners said, 'If you know anybody who has enough money to build a warehouse with like six sheets of ice and just basic locker rooms, you could sell the whole thing out for a year in 45 minutes,'" Flynn said. "There is such a need for more ice."

The Capitals, like many NHL teams in this country, have focused on helping produce more hockey players in the region because they've realized a hockey player for life is a hockey fan, and less likely to be fickle about the home team.

There are hockey roots in the region that weren't there 20 or 30 years ago. The Capitals have expanded their reach, whether it's through donating street hockey equipment to inner-city schools in Baltimore or welcoming kids from Virginia Beach and Richmond to participate in Mites On Ice.

"Obviously we can do more," Leonsis said. "One of the issues is real estate prices and convincing developers that an ice rink is the best use of real estate. We have a lot more to do because the growth was greater than any of us were expecting. It's also because it is such an expensive sport. And we've done a lot but we can do more in the inner city. Fort Dupont is a great example. I think over the next decade we'll be making bigger investments and more charitable work for underprivileged kids to be able to play more.

"We had this tagline of 'Building America's Hockey Capitol,' and while it was a marketing slogan we kind of believed it. We thought this was a great community, and we'd like to see more colleges playing hockey and more high schools playing hockey and keep upping the ante with helping to provide the means and the venues for kids who want to play the game to do so."


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