HOCKEY WEEKEND ACROSS AMERICA
By Jim Diamond
A nation-wide celebration of the “Coolest Game on Earth”
An early scene in the movie “Miracle” features Jim Craig looking at the list of invitees to the tryout for the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey team. Jack O’Callahan approaches the goaltender and asks, “How’s it looking?” Craig responds, “Lot of guys from Minnesota and Boston.”
Throw in a couple of guys from Michigan and Wisconsin and that was the roster of 20 players that went on to win the gold medal at the Olympics held in Lake Placid.
Fast forward 30 years, and the American hockey landscape has changed, and it has changed dramatically.
Youth hockey registrations have grown exponentially, the National Hockey League has expanded into previously unfathomable markets, and the Stanley Cup has been won by teams based in Tampa, Fla., Raleigh, N.C., and Anaheim, Calif.
January 29-31 is the third annual Hockey Weekend Across America. USA Hockey’s main mission for the weekend is to celebrate the game and all involved in the sport. With the “Coolest Sport on Earth” being played from coast to coast, there really is reason to celebrate the game all across America.
On the international level, USA Hockey is riding a string of recent success. The Under-17 team won the gold medal at the 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, and the Under-20 team won the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships with an overtime victory in the Gold Medal Game over host Canada. The rosters of those teams were comprised of players from all over the U.S., including states like California, Nevada, and Oklahoma.
“When you talk about USA Hockey in the old days, all you talked about was the three ‘M’s’ of Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts, and that was it,” Predators President of Hockey Operations and General Manager David Poile said. “If you played hockey, you were from those three states almost exclusively. Now you are getting players from not 50 states, but a lot of states.”
Predators defenseman and U.S. Olympian Ryan Suter
has noticed the expanding geographical reach of American hockey.
“It says a lot for USA Hockey,” Suter said. “They are working hard to make it so that it is everybody, not just the northern states. There are kids from Florida, California, and Arizona, so USA Hockey is doing a really good job at that.”
The Madison, Wis., native will serve as an alternate captain for Team USA at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Nashville’s recent draft history shows that the franchise embraces the players being produced from outside the alliterative three “M’s.”
Without a first round selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, they selected Blake Geoffrion with their second round pick that year (56th overall). Geoffrion is a Brentwood resident and a product of the Nashville Youth Hockey League. His father (Danny), grandfather (Bernie “Boom Boom”), and great-grandfather (Howie Morenz) all played in the NHL, with the latter two being Hall of Famers, so drafting a player with the last name Geoffrion did not raise too many eyebrows, even thought his driver’s license said he was a Tennessean.
But a year later, Nashville made history when they used their first round pick (23rd overall) on Vancouver Giants defenseman Jonathon Blum
. Selecting a player from the rough and tumble Western Hockey League was nothing historical, but where Blum was born and raised was unique. The Southern California native was the first such player ever taken in the first round of the NHL Draft.
Blum started playing street and roller hockey as a young child in his hometown of Rancho Santa Margarita and made his on-ice debut not long thereafter. Blum’s minor hockey team, the California Wave would travel to tournaments in traditional hockey markets and frequently came away winners to the surprise of some of their opponents.
“We’d travel four or five times a year out east; Toronto, Chicago, places like that, really high caliber tournaments,” Blum said. “For a while we were a pretty big powerhouse for our age group. People would take us lightly thinking we were a bunch of surfers with long blond hair, but at the end of the day, we were winning a lot of the tournaments.”
With the quality of hockey being played in his home state, Blum thinks that there will be more of his fellow Californians’ names called in future NHL Drafts.
“I see a lot of top-end talent coming out of there and getting drafted into the NHL in the next 5-to-10 years,” he said.
From the 4-to-6-year-old Termites who need assistance lacing up their skates on up through the adult recreational leagues, hockey has taken hold in Middle Tennessee and it is still growing. The number of youth hockey players in the Nashville area has increased ten-fold since the Predators came to town. When Geoffrion was coming through the system, there were approximately 100 youth hockey players in Nashville, today there are more than 1,000.
With the formation of the Greater Nashville Minor Hockey Association, there will be two teams of minor hockey players skating under the name of the Nashville Jr. Predators. Greater Nashville Area Scholastic Hockey features 17 teams comprised of over 20 Midstate high schools, and several local colleges ice club teams as well.
Held each summer in Franklin, the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase brings in players from all over North America. It gives those prospects a chance to play in front of coaches and scouts from collegiate and junior hockey programs in both the U.S. and Canada.
The Predators do their part to expose newcomers to the ice. With the “Get Out And Learn! (GOAL!) program, local children have the opportunity to try the sport, and all it costs their parents is a ride to the rink.
Since its inception in October 2006, more than 1,100 boys and girls have graduated from Get Out And Learn!, the Nashville Predators free beginner hockey program for kids ages 4-9. Roughly 20 percent of these kids are now part of the Nashville youth hockey scene playing on teams at local rinks.
The team’s Street Pride program provides free street hockey equipment to area community centers as well.
It is not just the players who have been developing in Nashville; the fans have evolved since the Predators came to town. Nashville players and coaches marvel at the advancement of the Predators fans over the years. Early on, a goal or a big fight were certain to stir the crowd, but in recent years a timely penalty kill or a high-energy shift from the fourth line has been known to draw the Sommet Center faithful to their feet for an ovation lasting the entirety of a 90-second media timeout.
“The people that go to our games really understand hockey quite well now because they enjoy the game, they wanted to learn about it, and they have,” Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz said. “They have a good hockey IQ. The first year, I couldn’t say that, because we had a lot of non-traditional people coming to the games. Now our fans are as knowledgeable as they are in Canada.”
Celebrate Hockey Weekend Across America citizens of Smashville, America truly is a hockey nation.