Three youth hockey teams and one high school team are representing Middle Tennessee at USA Hockey National tournaments held around the country this month—a participation level that is clear evidence of the growth of the sport of hockey on the Nashville Predators’ home turf.
“This is the first time that Tennessee was ever represented at the national high school tournament,” says Tim Rathert, coach of the Hendersonville Commandos team that recently returned from the high school nationals in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Commandos won just one of their three games but enjoyed playing hockey in another part of the U.S. and competing against high school programs from across the country.
“It was a tremendous experience,” Rathert says. “The guys had a super time and for many of the kids it probably is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to participate on that sort of stage.”
Starting today, 12 teams from the states of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee will be participating in youth national tournaments in various sites around the country. Three of those teams—a relatively high number—are from Nashville.
|Follow the progress of the three Nashville Junior Predators teams competing in USA Hockey National tournaments. (After following the respective links below, select the “1A” classification from the age division drop down menu.) |
Nashville Jr. Predators '99 – USA Hockey Tier II (1A) 12 & Under Nationals, Ashburn/Reston, VA (3/28/2012 - 4/1/2012) - http://bit.ly/Hes76D
Nashville Jr. Predators '97 – USA Hockey Tier II (1A) 14 & Under Nationals, Wayne, NJ (3/28/2012 - 4/1/2012) - http://bit.ly/GXfdr3
Nashville Jr. Predators U18 – USA Hockey Tier II (1A) 18 & Under Nationals, Lansing, MI (3/28/2012 - 4/1/2012) - http://bit.ly/GXk0gk
According to Andee Boiman, Nashville Predators director of youth hockey and fan development, reaching the national tournaments is a big accomplishment.
“USA Hockey Nationals are a way to showcase U.S.-born hockey players,” Boiman says. “All of the kids that play in U.S.A. Hockey Nationals are living in the U.S., and it’s a way to get kids of similar ages from across the entire nation together in one location for a four- or five-day tournament.”
Teams have to qualify for an invite by winning a post-season tournament in their state or region. “You’ve got the best of the best,” Boiman says.
The three local youth teams—Nashville Junior Predators ’99, Nashville Junior Predators ’97 and Nashville Junior Predators U18—bear the name of the Junior Predators travel team program that produced them. That program, endorsed by the Nashville Predators and currently in its third year, merged the efforts of the separate travel programs at the two area rinks, A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin and Centennial Sportsplex in downtown. That allowed the collaborative group to assemble the best possible teams from this area. The result is a pool of players that is now developing at quicker pace and is already requiring the local rinks to offer more elite classifications for players to progress to next season.
The Nashville Predators have made considerable efforts to be supportive to the youth hockey community at each stage of development, through summer hockey camps, Preds player clinics and other initiatives. But according to Boiman, the program that has seen the most growth is the organization’s introduction to hockey, called Get Out and Learn (G.O.A.L!).
“If parents have kids that are interested in hockey, we encourage them to start with our Get Out and Learn program,” Boiman says. “It’s a free learn-to-play program. We provide all the equipment. There’s no cost to families to join. So it’s a great way just to try it out.”
The fact that two players on the Junior Predators ’99 squad are 2007 graduates of G.O.A.L! is just one example of the impact that the local National Hockey League team is having in the blossoming Middle Tennessee youth hockey community. But the number of local teams progressing to national tournaments this year is the bigger story—one that bodes well for a bright future for ice hockey in Nashville and surrounding areas.
“We can compete on a national level and we’re developing some pretty good hockey players here in Middle Tennessee,” Hendersonville Commandos coach Rathert says. “As long as our talent continues to develop at a young age [and] the skill level continues to develop, hockey in the South is strong and growing. There were teams [at the high school nationals] from Florida, South Carolina, California, New Mexico, everywhere across the country. Nashville is just as capable and prominent as anywhere else in the country at developing and nurturing great hockey players.”