USA Hockey Welcome Back Week for 2020, which began Sunday, is presenting a unique strategy for the annual celebration of youth and adult leagues returning to competition.
For one, recruitment and retention efforts will be different with doors reopening after the coronavirus pandemic kept players, coaches, officials and their families away from the rink. All participants yet to register will receive prerecorded messages tailored to each group: Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones for the boys, United States National Team forward Kendall Coyne Schofield for the girls, former NHL forward Keith Tkachuk for adult males and two-time U.S. Olympian A.J. Mleczko for adult females. Only the 8-and-under levels got messages in previous years.
There's also a new player in town, the Seattle Kraken, with grassroots efforts in the Pacific Northwest to help welcome the NHL expansion team that will begin play in the 2021-22 season.
"While there's the Welcome Back piece to it, they're working so hard to engage the community and get so many different intersections of their community to be engaged to try hockey and learn more about youth hockey opportunity," assistant executive director, membership for USA Hockey Kevin Erlenbach said.
The main rink of Northgate Ice Centre, the Kraken's three-sheet practice facility, is on pace to open in the summer of 2021. The Kraken have studied the effects of NHL teams launching in uncharted regions including Anaheim, San Jose, Dallas, Phoenix and Las Vegas, Seattle project leader Lance Lopes told the team website during the Northgate Ice Centre announcement in October 2018. The response was 35,000 deposits for season tickets after opening a ticket portal March 1, 2018 and a waiting list of at least 60,000.
Seattle was already a mature hockey market before it was granted an NHL team, with close proximity to the Canadian border and the success of the Seattle Thunderbirds, who won their first Western Hockey League championship in 2016-17. The momentum generated from the birth of the Kraken has created much more potential.
"We plan to build on that excitement as we share our programming plans for the Kraken Training Centre," said Kyle Boyd, Seattle's director of youth and community development. "We are working with schools, youth sport organizations, and community organizations to expose more families to the game of hockey and provide them with opportunities to learn about the game. We plan on growing the game through engagement with off-ice ball hockey experiences in addition to on-ice skating opportunities.
"Finally, we plan on thinking creatively about how we connect with avid, casual and prospective hockey fans through authentic and engaging ways."
According to USA Hockey, youth participation in Seattle grew 6.1 percent, and adult participation was up 18.7 percent, from 2018-19 to 2019-20. Total participation within a 50-mile radius of Climate Pledge Arena, the redeveloping former KeyArena, increased to 7,905, up 12.6 percent from 887 the previous year.
But there's more to do with little time to rest.
"I'm from traditional hockey markets and you still continue to grow, so the great part is they know the importance of that," said New Hope, Minnesota native Katie Holmgren, director, program services for USA Hockey. "So, there's always work to be done, no matter how big your base is."
Also new is the Membership Relief Fund to help children and families with financial hardship return to hockey. Erlenbach said he estimated the fund has raised at least $60,000 from $46 donations covering the cost of USA Hockey membership for one child to play this season. Holmgren said she's heard about local associations working to figure out how they can assist financially around the U.S. to get those kids back to the rink.
"The great part about it has been that so many people are so excited about it, so they've donated to the membership relief fund, and that speaks to how close-knit hockey families are," Holmgren said. "We're doing what we can from that standpoint. We've heard great feedback on it and it's helped quite a few families so far."
Other USA Hockey initiatives include IIHF Girls Hockey Weekend, Try Hockey for Free Day and Hockey Week Across America, with Try Hockey for Free Day scheduled for Nov. 7 and Feb. 20, 2021. And while more states reopen, another challenge awaits, recruiting at the 8-and-under age level under the shadow of a pandemic.
"We've got to work 10 times as hard to make sure we get new players in the game," Erlenbach said. "If we lose out on a new pool of kids, what's going to haunt us forever is that gap ages-up. That's going to be critical as we invite new families out and try and help them incentivize them to give it a chance."