By Jessica Jones
To the casual observer, ice hockey might not seem quite as American as apple pie and baseball, but fortunately, the folks at USA Hockey have something to say about that.
With the introduction of Hockey Weekend Across America – slated for Feb. 15-17 – USA Hockey has a plan to bring their sport into the limelight in hopes of not only celebrating their game, but also promoting its growth. USA Hockey, the governing body for the sport in America, plans to reach out to those who may not have had the chance to experience the game with its three-day celebration of all things American hockey.
“I think this could be something really special,” said Jed Ortmeyer, one of three U.S.-born players on the Predators, along with Ryan Suter
and David Legwand
. “I think it is something for hockey to be proud of, trying to set an example and get a little more recognition for the sport throughout the States. Hopefully it will get more kids involved.”
|GM's Poile and Pleau Active |
with USA Hockey
|Beyond the players, Predators President of Hockey Operations and General Manager David Poile is very active with USA Hockey, as is Larry Pleau, General Manager for Satuday night's opponent the St. Louis Blues. Both Poile and Pleau have served on selection committees for US National Teams. |
Poile is currently a member of USA Hockey's management committee, a four GM group which oversees the coach and player selection for the IIHF World Championships.
Pleau played for Team USA on the 1968 Olympic squad and served as GM for the for Team USA at the 2003 and 2004 World Championships and 2004 World Cup of Hockey. He gives USA Hockey a lot of credit for the sport's growth within the United States and gives USA Hockey's National Team Development Program high marks for its ability to help the US improve its standing in international tournaments.
"It’s helped players develop in an elite and high level program early on in their career," Pleau said of the NTDP. "The development program has helped not just for the international level but for the college level as well."
Coming from a city like Omaha, NE, which is not particularly known for its hockey tradition, Ortmeyer always had to work a little harder than players from the hockey hotbeds of Michigan or Minnesota. Fighting for ice time, not getting enough sleep, but still having energy for school was part of the daily grind. Ortmeyer sees the popularity of hockey growing in non-traditional markets, like Nashville, as a good thing.
“You look at the rosters now and there are guys from California, Texas, myself from Omaha,” he said. “There are players coming from non-traditional hockey places so I think it is starting to spread and become more popular in the States and it is only going to get bigger. The way the game is going now, it’s an exciting game and I think people are starting to take notice.”
Suter, on the other hand, grew up living and breathing hockey. With his father winning a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics as a part of the “Miracle on Ice” team, and his uncle playing more than 1,100 NHL games, hockey was in no short supply for the Madison, WI, native. Some of his greatest memories revolve around the sport of ice hockey.
“Some of my best memories are of seeing my uncle play in the NHL and getting to watch him play in Chicago,” Suter said. “I even got to watch the last Blackhawks game in the old Chicago Stadium.”
Suter also fondly recalls helping Team USA win three gold medals in international competition – including the United States’ first World Junior Championship in 2004.
“It was a great honor,” Suter said of playing for the Red, White and Blue. “To be asked to represent your country was definitely a great honor.”
Suter credits USA Hockey’s grass-roots programs for jump-starting popularity of the sport. Getting children involved at a younger age builds a bigger fan base, as well as developing a wider selection of players. This is one reason why neither Suter nor Ortmeyer seemed shocked by the drafting of players from non-traditional markets. In 2007 the Predators drafted Brentwood, TN’s own Blake Geoffrion, then selected Jonathon Blum in the first round of the 2007 Entry Draft, making him the first California-born and trained player to be selected in the first round.
“I’m not really surprised,” Suter said. “USA Hockey started out years ago and it wasn’t as big as it is today. But it has grown and I think it just shows how good of a job USA Hockey is doing. I mean, there was a guy drafted from Tennessee. Who would have thought? I think it’s pretty neat.”
Ortmeyer also credits league expansion with the broadening of hockey popularity, as well as the 1988 blockbuster trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.
“When Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings, people took notice of the best player going to that market,” he said. “It’s an exciting game and people are starting to watch it more—even on TV. To have hockey in places like Nashville and Texas generates more excitement about hockey in those areas.”
Both players hold a strong sense of pride for being Americans playing in the NHL today, bonding with other players from the States.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Suter said of being an American in the NHL. “On this team there are only three of us. Hopefully down the road there will be more Americans.”