When people think of youth hockey in Middle Tennessee, the name Blake Geoffrion immediately comes to mind. Geoffrion was the first Tennessee native to be drafted into the NHL, and it just so happened that his hometown team, the Nashville Predators, selected the forward in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
While Geoffrion is seen as having reached the pinnacle for many Middle Tennessee-raised hockey players, most would argue that the Predators franchise is the actual source of the growing hockey culture in the greater Nashville area. The number of youth and adult hockey players in the area has grown exponentially since the team was founded in 1998, and as the Predators see more success on the ice, the number of people taking to the ice on their own begins to trend upwards. And with that recent success at the NHL level, Nashville’s still budding hockey culture may see its most productive year as two Tennesseans – 13-year-old Kyle Kawamura (May 27, 1999) and 16-year-old Aaron O’Neill (May 5, 1997) – embark on hockey careers on their own.
Kawamura, who was born during the Predators inaugural season and now plays with Thunder AAA out of A-Game in Franklin, was recognized by The Franklin Special School District Board of Education and Director of Schools Dr. David Snowden on Monday for his success on the ice and his recent recognition as the Youth 1 2013 Youthee Player of the Year nominee. Although Kawamura did not take home the award, he was one of only four hockey players in the Nation nominated for the honor.
Kawamura, an eighth grader at Poplar Grove Middle School, is quite a success story for Middle Tennessee hockey as he is the first Tennessee-born player to see such success at the youth hockey level – other prospects from this area, including Geoffrion, were transplants that moved to Nashville from other areas of the country. Kawamura was recently ranked as one of the Top Five players in the Nation for the 1999 birth year after posting 100 points (57g-43a) in 52 games with the Thunder’s 1998 Bantam Major team – a small step back from the 123 goals and 152 points he posted in 63 games against his own age group a season prior – and was instrumental in helping his team win the USHL Showcase and Music City Winter Classic. In 2009, after dominating a Predators sponsored skills event in Nashville, the 13-year old also placed nationally at the Ace Bailey Got Skills Competition in New York, ranking third among his age group in hardest shot and fastest skater.
Those accolades are fairly surprising coming from a player with a “non-traditional” hockey background, who first skated during a friend’s birthday party. The hockey bug took a hold of Kawamura that day as he immediately began to play street hockey and eventually made the jump to ice hockey. Kyle began his on-ice career with the A-Game Polar Bears and the Nashville Jr. Predators before moving to the Tier 1 Thunder AAA travel hockey club in 2010.
O’Neill, on the other hand, is a Middle Tennessee transplant, who moved to the Nashville area from South Carolina to seek higher-end hockey talent to play against after playing hockey in South Carolina and Georgia. That type of move, which is happening more frequently, signals that Nashville is quickly becoming a hockey Mecca for young players throughout the Southeast.
O’Neill, a sophomore at Centennial High School, was recently drafted by the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, after posting 64 points (25g-39a) during the 2012-13 season with the U16 Thunder AAA squad. The 16-year old decided to forego playing in Canada and instead signed a tender with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League – the highest tier of junior hockey in the United States. The move may also tip O’Neill’s hand for the future as he retains his NCAA eligibility by staying in the United States – another growing trend among young players in the U.S. who are seeking hockey scholarships.
While Kawamura and O'Neill are just two players in a Middle Tennessee hockey culture that now boasts thousands of young players, it suggests that hockey is finally taking hold in the South, and that Nashville is becoming the go-to destination for young players in non-traditional hockey markets.