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Middle Tennessee a Beacon Southern Hockey Success

by Jim Diamond / Nashville Predators
The National Hockey League’s expansion into markets like Nashville and Atlanta are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hockey’s growth. From the youth to the college level, the Sunbelt is now making its presence felt throughout the game.

Just a generation ago, the thought of a National Hockey League game pitting a team from Atlanta against one from Nashville would have likely drawn a curious stare and even a potential head shake from anyone who knew anything about hockey. Atlanta’s first foray into the NHL ended when the Flames relocated northwest to Calgary, and the idea of Nashville as an NHL market just wouldn’t have seemed likely.

Tuesday night’s matchup between the Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators will feature two NHL franchises that are products of the league’s most recent round of expansion in the late 90s. Both have faced their share of challenges on and off the ice in the 10-plus years they have been in the league, but growing pains were to be expected in an area of the country where hockey is still a relatively new concept to most.

With the team eyeing their sixth playoff appearance in their last seven seasons and a stable ownership group in place comprised mostly of Nashville residents, the Predators are on solid ground, making the future for hockey in Music City appear very bright.

That future is in no way limited to players at the NHL level either. Prior to the Predators coming to town, there were about 100 kids playing youth hockey. Today, that number exceeds 1,000 and is only limited by the low number of sheets of ice currently located in the Middle Tennessee area.

“You have to start building the infrastructure and that is the long-term planning of your hockey base, and that’s building hockey rinks, building up minor hockey, adult hockey, women’s hockey all those things,” Predators President of Hockey Operations/General Manager David Poile said. “If you want to play you are probably going to want to attend some games and follow the Predators, so it all goes hand in hand. When you really look at it, you are looking at a 20-30 year game plan.”

A youth hockey player who was a 10-year-old in 1998 when the puck dropped on the Predators inaugural season is now 23. Kids who grow up playing and loving hockey turn into adults who play and love hockey. They are also likely to become ticket buyers.

Of course, there is that rare 10-year-old who will grow up, beat the odds, and become an NHL player. Predators center Blake Geoffrion was 10 when the Predators came to town, and he now wears the jersey of the team he cheered for just a few years prior.

Geoffrion’s story will not just increase the interest in playing hockey; it will also give those players someone to look up to as a model of where the sport could take them no matter their geographic location.

“How many kids in the Nashville area are now going to aspire to do it because Blake Geoffrion made it?” USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director for Hockey Operations Jim Johannson said. “I don’t think we can put a firm number on it, but I can absolutely guarantee that some kids are going to say, ‘You know what, you can make it if you grow up in this area, Blake Geoffrion did.’”
Another beneficiary of the NHL’s movement into southern markets is college hockey. According to College Hockey, Inc., 1,053 of the 1,568 NCAA Division I men’s hockey players this season are Americans. Forty different states and the District of Columbia have at least one player at the Division I level this season. The state of Florida leads the way in the southeast with 13 Division I players, followed by Virginia (11), Georgia (4), Tennessee and Alabama (2 each), and one each from Kentucky and North Carolina.

While the three Ms of Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts have developed the majority of American hockey players, other states are producing good players, and those players are being recognized.

“Kids who can play will be identified,” College Hockey Inc. Director of Communications Nate Ewell said. “Our college coaches love to visit non-traditional markets and recruit. As these markets grow, coaches are there more and more on the ground seeing these kids. There are definitely opportunities and coaches definitely don’t shy away from a kid based on where he is from.”

Colleges wishing to add men’s hockey at the Division I level face significant obstacles, but with the number of players being developed in the South, down the road, other schools may be looking to add hockey and join the University of Alabama-Huntsville, which is currently the only Division I hockey-playing school located below the Mason-Dixon Line.

“There are a handful of schools that have expressed interest,” Ewell said. “Youth hockey may grow because of the NHL. College hockey is going to grow as a result of that youth hockey growth.”

Ewell noted that Penn State is making the move from club hockey to the Division I level. He said that the popularity of youth hockey in Western Pennsylvania increased following the Stanley Cup victories of the Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 90s.

Poile is the oracle of professional hockey in the south. Prior to taking the GM position in Nashville, he held the same title in Washington. He started his professional life as an administrative assistant with the then expansion Atlanta Flames, opening up the team’s office in a temporary trailer. Poile’s father Bud was the first general manager of both the Vancouver Canucks and the Philadelphia Flyers, so starting teams from scratch is in the Poile DNA.

“One of my fondest memories of Atlanta was starting out with something brand new,” Poile said. “I was an administrative assistant, so I felt like I had something to do with it, but it was not all my decisions. My opportunity with Nashville was it was something that I could start from ground one. Whether it was good or bad, you were going to have your fingerprints over everything, designing of the uniforms, the shaping of your office, your office staff, your coaching staff, your scouts, and your farm team, everything that goes into it. I liked that challenge.”

With the Predators, Poile has drafted players who are from American markets previously thought of as non-traditional. In addition to Geoffrion, both Jonathon Blum and Taylor Aronson are natives of Southern California.

Since their February recalls to the Predators, Geoffrion and Blum have made significant contributions, and the powers that be at USA Hockey have taken notice. They have represented Team USA previously and may wear red, white, and blue in the future as well.

“Those are two players that have played on our national teams as well,” Johannson said. “Not only are they making an impact in the National Hockey League level with their team, they played on our junior team. As we start to put together depth charts for future rosters, those names are certainly in the mix of guys that will be wearing the USA jersey in the future.”

It may take a few years, but as the popularity of hockey continues to grow, a day will come when American players who come from towns like Brentwood, Tennessee or Rancho Santa Margarita, California will not be outside what are considered normal sources of hockey talent.

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