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Preds Players see Impact of Hockey Weekend Across America

by Savannah Hollis / Nashville Predators

For American-born players on the Nashville Predators, Hockey Weekend Across America (HWAA) signifies an important stepping stone in the growth of American Hockey.

HWAA is a three-day long initiative, sponsored by CCM and USA Hockey, which focuses on promoting youth hockey across the nation. The event, founded in 2008, has provided thousands of kids the ability to experience hockey with no fees.

The event gives each day a theme to get people involved. The first day, Friday, has become known as “Wear Your Jersey” day, and encourages people to wear a hockey jersey, from their favorite NHL team or a local league.

Saturday, the main event day, is “Try Hockey for Free” day and focuses on getting people involved with hockey at no cost. During this year’s event, more than 400 rinks participated nationwide, providing more than 12,000 kids with the opportunity to try the sport for free.

The final day of the initiative, Sunday, has been dubbed “Celebrate Hockey Heroes” day and asks people to recognize those who have influenced hockey in their lives. The heroes can range from an NHL role model, local team coaches or even parents who have supported a child throughout their career.

Ice hockey is one of the most expensive sports to get involved in, and allowing kids to try it for free gives the nation’s youth a chance to get involved in a sport they may not otherwise be able to experience.

David Legwand, a Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., native and Nashville’s first-ever draft pick, sees the benefits of an event like HWAA.

“It’s obviously an expensive sport, so I think it’s good that [the rinks] are going to let kids try it for free,” Legwand said. “Anything we can do to get more kids involved and playing is positive. I think you see a lot more rinks around Nashville, kids playing around town and getting involved. It’s good for the community, good for the city, good for the sport and good for the Preds.”

However, the benefits that Legwand sees from HWAA would not be possible if not for the tremendous growth in USA Hockey. Craig Smith, who grew up in Madison, Wis., believes the growth has stemmed from kids having more resources and programs available to them.

“Through programs like the USA camps, there are a lot of ways to improve as a player,” Smith said. “There are people you can go to for help to get better at hockey. It’s easier and more accessible for people to get involved in now.”

Forward Colin Wilson has had personal experience training with the resources that USA Hockey provided in hopes of producing more hockey players across the nation. The Greenwich, Conn., native was a part of the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) before attending Boston University where he was drafted seventh overall by Nashville in 2008.

“[USA Hockey] fully developed me from [ages] 15 to 17 when I was with the National Team,” Wilson said. “They got me lifting weights and thinking about things I wasn’t thinking about when I was out on the ice. They developed my all-around play and really made me better.”

The USNTDP which is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., designed to identify and train elite US born players under the age of 18. The program helped train future NHLers and United States Olympians such as Patrick Kane and James van Riemsdyk.

Up-and-coming Preds defenseman, Seth Jones, also trained with the USNTDP before launching his career as a star player. However, prior to his time in Michigan, Jones spent five years playing in Texas, which, like Nashville, is considered a non-traditional hockey market.

The 19-year-old understands the impact that HWAA can have on the development of players in places that do not typically have a strong hockey community.

“I think [Hockey Weekend Across America] is very important,” Jones said. “The more kids we can get to play around the country, especially in non-hockey markets like Nashville, the better off we are. The game is growing every year, and I think USA Hockey is doing a great job of helping that growth. They’re putting more kids in hockey by building more rinks and giving kids opportunities to play.”

The Preds have been capitalizing on providing more opportunities for kids to get involved in hockey. The organization hosts multiple events throughout the year where kids can try hockey.

Hockey with Heroes presented by Erie Insurance is a day-long clinic for kids who want to improve their hockey skills under the direction of various Preds players, coaches and staff. The event happens multiple times throughout the year for kids who are already in youth hockey leagues.

Another program the Preds host is the Get Out and Learn! (G.O.A.L.) program presented by Erie Insurance. G.O.A.L. is designed to allow kids between the ages of 5-8 to try the sport for free. One day a week for four weeks various Preds personalities, such as Stu Grimson, help instruct the kids on how to learn hockey basics.

The Preds are even building a brand-new facility in Hickory Hollow that will consist of two rinks. The facility will be run by the Preds and will be completely dedicated to expanding hockey within the Nashville area. Events such as HWAA will be hosted, hockey leagues of all ages will have a new place to use, and even college teams will be free to utilize the space.

The more that hockey in America grows, the more important it is to get people involved with the sport. Events like Hockey Weekend Across America allow kids and communities to come together to try something new, and to support the development of youth hockey from sea to shining sea.

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