This coming Sunday will mark the 35th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” the matchup that saw the United States Olympic Men’s ice hockey team, a substantial underdog, topple the Soviet Union’s team at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games. When talking about the growth the sport of hockey has seen in recent years, this “Miracle on Ice” game is often looked to as a turning point, a point where an entire nation, rather than a select few northern states, became interested in the sport.
But it’s not just one game that changed a nation’s view on hockey, but rather a combination of hard work and dedication by countless people and organizations to expand the sport through the U.S. According to a study by USA Hockey, America had fewer than 200,000 hockey players in 1990, 10 years after the U.S. played the Soviet Union, but in 2015, 35 years later, that number has grown to surpass half a million.
“While our task is never completed, we never hit a finish line, we never break a tape, we never say we’re done, because there’s always another tournament to win, there’s always another player to try to develop, another young kid to recruit to the game, I think it’s fair to say that USA Hockey is as strong as it has ever been,” USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean, said.
It’s a unique coincidence that this year, the anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice” falls on the final day of USA Hockey’s Eighth Annual “Hockey Weekend Across America.” This weekend, which runs Friday, Feb. 20-Sunday, Feb. 22, is a celebration of hockey’s past, present and future in the United States, with each day of the event featuring a special theme.
“Wear Your Favorite Jersey Day” starts off the weekend’s activities on Friday. On this day, all fans are encouraged to wear the hockey jersey of their favorite player or team to work, school and other activities.
On Saturday, more than 300 rinks in 47 states will host “Try Hockey for Free Day,” a day sponsored by the National Hockey League, which allows thousands of people the opportunity to get on the ice and try hockey for the first time.
Including the people of Middle Tennessee.
“I don’t think you can pin it on one thing,” Ogrean said of the growth of hockey. “I think it’s been a collection of events and activities over the course of a very long time.”
Hockey’s growth in “non-traditional” markets, like Nashville, has been a product of many things, but most noteworthy are the gold medals won by the American men in Lake Placid in 1980,the American women in the 1998 Nagano Olympics and the trade that brought Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in August of 1988. And perhaps, most importantly, the expansion of the National Hockey League.
“An often overlooked component, going back to my theme, ‘we’re all in this together,’ was the significant expansion of the National Hockey League when Gary Bettman became the Commissioner,” Ogrean said. “Teams were put into so many non-traditional markets, giving the sport a national footprint for the very first time.”
The development of franchise players like Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne that young players in Middle Tennessee can look up to, and the recent success of the Preds, certainly has had a huge impact on the state of hockey in the Volunteer State.
But like Ogrean said, it’s a collection of events that truly spurs growth, and one of these events in Middle Tennessee has been the Predators dedication to expanding youth and adult hockey and getting people on the ice for the first time. In conjunction with "Try Hockey for Free Day," the Preds are hosting a free clinic for women at Ford Ice Center and have also recently announced the next sessions of their popular Get Out and Learn! program.
Sunday, the final day of Hockey Weekend Across America, is Celebrate Local Hockey Heroes. This day encourages hockey programs and teams across the country to honor their local heroes.
Hockey Weekend Across America is a great way for any fan, whether they’re new to the sport or have been following since birth, to celebrate the sport of hockey. Perhaps this celebration means pulling on a Seth Jones Predators jersey before work on Friday, strapping on skates for the first time Saturday or thanking a local hero on Sunday.
Whatever is chosen, proof of the growth of hockey, in the United States and in Tennessee, is the fact that there is the celebration itself.
“We [USA Hockey and the NHL] all have the same goal,” Ogrean said. “Which is to get more people watching, more people playing and more people excited about the game of hockey.”
If the numbers, from the growth of youth hockey players in the U.S. to the amount of Predators Gold being worn across the mid-state is any indication, it’s safe to say that that excitement is here.
For more information about the Nashville Predators’ upcoming Try Hockey for Free programs (both the ladies program and upcoming Get Out and Learn! presented by Erie Insurance sessions, visit Nashvillepredators.com/goal. To learn more about USA Hockey’s Hockey Weekend Across America and how you can get involved, check out Hockeyweekendacrossamerica.com.