Chris Mason, J-P Dumont and Jim McKenzie have a few things in common. They all started in Canada. They all had successful NHL careers. And now they’re all coaching and evaluating some of the most talented youth hockey players from across North America and the world.
In Nashville, Tennessee.
Twenty years ago, that address didn’t exactly scream hockey. But these three men all made stops in Music City during their playing careers with the Nashville Predators and saw what was here.
Now, thanks to people like them, hockey players from the southeastern United States aren’t uncommon. And the trio’s work at the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase is helping to fuel that surge in a part of the country where the humidity levels used to be much higher than the youth enrollment numbers. But that gap is closing. Quickly.
Held at Ford Ice Center – a sparkling facility run by the Preds – for the first time in its 11-year history, Elite Edge is helping to produce junior, college and even professional hockey players.
“You look at it, and they’re competing with some of the best markets in the United States and Canada; it’s unbelievable in under 20 years how far hockey has come,” Mason, who tended goal for the Predators organization, said. “It’s just so impressive to see kids coming from all over to compete in Nashville with a large local group of players here, and it’s amazing. It’s only going to get better.”
Dumont, who played for the Preds from 2006 through 2011, has seen the growth firsthand. Now a Nashville resident, as well as owner and general manager of the Predators NA3HL team, Dumont continues to play a role in the growth of hockey in Tennessee, including his appearances at Elite Edge.
“The kids are coming here, and when they leave, they’re learning so much about what’s ahead for them,” Dumont said. “Especially for the South, I’m here, so I’m trying to help the kids in the South. For them to see that there are so many more opportunities sometimes that you don’t realize if they don’t come to a camp like this, it’s a good thing. I’m glad to be able to be here and to help with this camp. It’s amazing.”
McKenzie finished his NHL career in Nashville during the 2003-04 season. Now a scout for the Florida Panthers, McKenzie says the success that Elite Edge participants are having not only gives credibility to the camp, but the region he now calls home.
“To have something like this where kids are coming this way, to have them make the trip into here because it’s worth it, you can see where it’s going each time a different kid signs with a program,” McKenzie said. “It’s great to see the Elite Edge email blast about who’s going to college or where the kid is on his way to. You saw him play here, and it just builds on it. It’s an affirmation for the kids that come in and put in the time and the parents that bring their kids here, and it works.”
McKenzie believes the camp directly correlates with the caliber of players starting to come out of the region. Combine that with the success of the Predators on and off the ice, and the momentum will only continue to build.
“Nashville is one of those cities where you expose these kids to the game, it’s a fun game, it’s a great game, and the more kids you have, pretty soon you start getting the best athletes,” McKenzie said. “When you get these kids in there, they’re hooked on the game because it’s so much fun. You have a kid that’ll go off and play, maybe he’ll play college hockey at some point and start his own family; during the week he’ll have his kids playing, and on Sunday night, he’s picking up his bag at 45 years old to go play men’s league.”
Dumont also played in markets like Chicago and Buffalo during his career, and while Nashville didn’t have the foundation in the sport like those cities, it’s beginning to catch up.
“Those kids in 10 or 15 years, they’re going to be the ones buying season tickets,” Dumont said. “If all those kids fall in love with the game they play, those are the ones who are going to buy season tickets. I think you can see that around any NHL city, but the Predators are definitely stepping up their game, and it’s fun to see.”
Mason, Dumont and McKenzie have a lot in common. Now they’re all sticking around in what is becoming a hockey-mad city to help continue to grow the game.
When the summertime humidity levels rise, it’s an easy way to cool off. Better than that, Elite Edge provides a starting point for a slew of local players. And it’s very possible the instruction from former pros is being passed on to a future NHLer.
“There’s just a ton of hockey guys here, so the players have elite coaching, and you can find athletes everywhere,” Mason said. “They’ve grown up watching the Predators and gravitated toward hockey, and now they have the proper training. It’s going to get better and it’s really cool to see such a high-level camp here, especially when you have a lot of local kids here who are representing Nashville. They’re playing Division I, going to play junior; there’s a big hockey community here and it’s pretty special.”