There’s a fever growing in Nashville, an unmistakable change in the wind that’s making the Nashville Predators one of the most talked about teams in the country. Fans are filling the stands covered in Gold and the rest of the NHL is taking notice. Of course, the incredible season that has played out on the ice is a huge part in making this happen, but there’s something else that is also aiding in the transformation – youth hockey.
Many sports fans in the South grew up surrounded by “Sweet Tea and the SEC.” While hockey was around, it never took precedence over football for them. Through the use of grassroots efforts that began in their inaugural season, the Predators organization is looking to change this mindset by targeting Middle Tennessee’s youth. For the team, it’s genius. Not only are they building a fan base early, they are creating experiences for families to be exposed to the sport as a unit.
Hockey is much more than a puck, skates and an occasional scrap. To be successful, a player must maintain balance, agility and mental strength. For the Predators, the focus is teaching these skills both on and off the ice. From Hockey Rules to the Get Out and Learn! Program, the Youth Hockey and Fan Development division of the Predators organization prides itself on reaching as many children as possible through a multitude of well-developed programs.
Formally established in 2006, Hockey Rules educates elementary and middle school children with hour-long street hockey sessions focused on basic hockey skills. Students are able to examine player equipment, learn stick handling and stay active by playing a scrimmage game. Reaching more than 5,000 students each year, the program allows the organization to maintain a positive presence in the community while also exposing children to hockey.
“To be able to get in front of our most impressionable fan base, the younger fan, by going into elementary schools and taking over P.E. classes is really important for us as an organization to help grow participation,” Preds Director of Youth Hockey Andee Boiman said. “The fact that we are able to partner with so many schools across the Middle Tennessee area and have access to be able to go in and provide a free educational program for kids to keep them active, keep them healthy, teach them something about themselves and go out there and have fun, that’s what it’s all about.”
Beyond the cultivation of street hockey education, the organization has developed a collection of clinics to bring ice hockey to children of all age and income levels. For those who are wary of equipment costs, the G.O.A.L! program provides a four-week learning tutorial for children ages 5-12, free of charge. Each week, participants develop skill sets taught by experienced USA Hockey coaches through interactive drill sessions.
The success of the program over the last decade has established an outlet for kids to not only develop their skills, but also be a source of encouragement to continue playing.
“We’re able to say that we bring in about 600 new kids a year and about 15 percent of them sign up for a youth hockey league through a learn-to-skate class or learn-to-play class, so we’re not just having kids come out for one time, we’re seeing them take the next step,” Boiman said. “When we brought in the G.O.A.L! program, and all the facilities adapted to it and now Ford Ice has taken on with it, we’ve been able to expand the ages offered with it.
“We’re seeing years later our high school leagues are thriving because of kids that started in G.O.A.L! when they were five or eight. Now, ten years later, they’re playing in the high school leagues.”
In the last decade, exposure to the sport has made huge leap in the South, in large part due to the programs established by the Predators organization. As education has increased, the focus has now shifted toward participation and accessibility. In August of 2014, the Predators organization partnered with Mid-South Ford Dealers to open a new ice facility, the Ford Ice Center. Less than a year old, the facility has seen tremendous success and the Predators are seeing its impact early. As a whole, the organization is on target to raise total youth participation to 1,500 kids, up nearly 200 from last year.
“I think having the partnership with our brand on it really drives home the point of the positive experience and a destination for families,” Boiman said. “Building those two sheets opens up the ability for anybody to come out and play hockey or skate. It’s not just about playing hockey; it’s about putting skates on kids’ feet and sticks in kids’ hands.
“The minute you have more opportunity in the market for someone to try it, it’s going to be well-received and it’s going to open up more people coming out. We’ve seen more families engaged in the sport, we’ve seen more interest in participation.”
Roaming the Golden halls of Bridgestone Arena, the organization’s mission of “One Goal” is resoundingly clear. At first glance, many would assume the mission statement simply extends to a championship win for a city that has never experienced one by a professional franchise; but the objective far exceeds just the Stanley Cup. Win or lose, the Predators organization is bringing hockey to the forefront of southern culture.