While the Predators Hockey Operations Department has always embraced the philosophy of growing and developing prospects from within, the organization is adopting it in the community, growing its own future stars at the grassroots level.
For many kids, it’s the first time they’ve held a stick in their hands or laced up a pair of skates. For others, it’s one of the steps of developing into a proficient hockey player. Regardless of experience or skill level, the Nashville Predators’ youth hockey programs and grassroots initiatives give kids of all abilities and ages the chance to play hockey.
Nashville Predators and Bridgestone Arena Chief Operating Officer/President Sean Henry said the importance of grassroots hockey is essential to the Predators organization.
“It’s everything on every front,” Henry said. “It’s not just hockey. It’s associating our logo with 3, 4, 5, or 8-year-olds, whatever it may be. Obviously, hockey is the umbrella to all that, but whether it is roller hockey, street hockey, ice hockey, or honestly baseball or basketball, having our logo synonymous with sports, activity, and fun means a lot.”
The Predators’ Get Out and Learn! Program, one of their initiatives to introduce hockey to beginners, puts inexperienced kids on the ice for a free four-week long program, teaching them the fundamental skills needed to play hockey. Since the necessities for playing hockey rack up a high bill, the most essential element of the G.O.A.L.! program is the free equipment provided for its participants.
In what Henry calls a first generation hockey market, the Predators’ grassroots initiatives help break those barriers that keep many kids from ever getting into the sport.
“The cost of hockey is high,” Henry said. “Parents have to go out and buy hundreds of dollars worth of things for a 6-year-old to fall on the ice. But the idea is all those kids out there are in now. You talk to some of the moms and dads, and they have no idea how to put the equipment on. It’s an intimidating sport, but we’re breaking down those barriers. So, to me, the grassroots part of it is more important than anything else we do as an organization.”
The Predators host a number of other grassroots hockey initiatives, including their Summer Hockey School, where kids work with the Predators staff, coaches and players to learn more about the game and improve their skills. Henry said he believes the Predators special attention and involvement in their grassroots programs is unmatched by any other organization.
“They’re on the ice 30 minutes before it starts, and they’re helping pack up equipment 30 minutes after everyone has left,” Henry said. “I dare anyone to find a market that does that with the same passion, from team services to hockey coaches to players.”
The Predators have also installed grassroots initiatives to help kids of all ages throughout the state play hockey at a competitive level. The Predators Cup is a tournament for the top high school teams in Tennessee to compete on the Bridgestone Arena ice to determine the best team. While for young kids to teenagers, the Nashville Jr. Predators is a travel hockey program for kids ages 8-18 that allows kids to compete wearing the Nashville Predators jersey and crest.
In addition to providing avenues for kids to compete, the Predators host a variety of programs to teach kids about the sport, including Preds Hockey Rules presented by UnitedHealthcare. The Predators even provide grassroots initiatives for street hockey, like Taking Hockey to the Streets, through the National Hockey League’s Street Pride program.
But you can’t just throw kids on the ice without the proper guidance, so the Predators also provide programs, like Coaches Corner, to educate and instill knowledgeable, quality coaches throughout the state.
It’s no secret hockey is still growing in the south. But other cities, like Dallas, have proved the impact grassroots initiatives can have on the introduction of a hockey franchise to a new market, and Henry said that is what Nashville continues to do through their youth hockey programs.
“It’s not so much the smaller markets, it’s the newer markets,” Henry said. “Dallas, it’s the fourth or fifth largest market in America, when they became an organization 18 years ago, before they even started, they were building rinks because since it’s such a large city they knew how to introduce hockey properly to a new fan base, and that’s what it is here for us. It’s first-generation fans, for the most part. Even though a lot of people are from the north in hockey markets, you still have to touch the whole community and show them how much fun it is, how passionate it is.”
“So, it’s important for any size market, but let’s face it, the Canadian market, the Original Six markets, the rinks are older than the kids’ grandfathers. So, it was just always there. For us, we need to introduce it and take the fear out of hockey.”
With the Predators and other teams’ successful grassroots hockey initiatives, kids across the country will only grow to love the sport more, and, hopefully, continue to follow a dream because those kids are the ones who will represent our country in the big leagues one day.
“Twenty years ago, you could name the Americans in the NHL,” Henry said. “There were a handful of guys. You could name the best defenseman, the best goaltender, or whoever it may have been, and everyone knew who it was. Today, you can’t do that, and it’s really because programs like these were embraced.”
For the Predators, forward Blake Geoffrion is the prized success story of Nashville youth hockey.
“Here we have a guy, who was not only drafted, he was a Hobey Baker winner, he played for Wisconsin, and he goes, spends half a season in the minors, excels –I think he was one of the first guys in the history of the game to win back-to-back Player of the Week honors – and he’s here with the Predators producing at a high level, and he played his young hockey in Nashville.”
With a shining example of a kid who made it from Nashville’s youth rinks to the NHL, hopefully, more kids will embrace the opportunities provided by the Predators’ grassroots programs, and they, too, can follow a dream.