COLUMBUS, Ohio — Throughout the recently completed Stanley Cup playoffs, people inside and outside the hockey community bemoaned dwindling television ratings in the United States, using them to predict a tumultuous future for the sport in this country.
That correlation, however, might not be true. While there are problems of varying severity at the highest professional level, youth hockey in this country is flourishing. The number of people playing, coaching and officiating has more than doubled in the past 15 years. There are more opportunities for kids to continue their careers, and these avenues are doing a better job of developing them.
“[There is] better development and more players,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “There are players coming from everywhere. It is an interesting sort of phenomenon that is taking place in the U.S. now. We have hockey in more markets than the league has ever had. All these other places where people are playing hockey and kids are getting turned on to hockey. … I think it is great for the game. The U.S. is just this incredibly untapped market that will continue to develop good players.”
One area this is most evident is the NHL Entry Draft. Two years ago a record eight American-born players were selected in the first round. A new standard was set last June, when 10 U.S. players went in the first round.
The first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft is here tonight, and it is expected to be another good one for the United States. Anywhere from eight to 11 American-born players could stride to the podium at Nationwide Arena, including Patrick Kane and James vanRiemsdyk, who could become the first players from this country to be selected No. 1 and No. 2 in the same draft.
“It would be pretty cool to see Americans go 1-2 in the draft,” Kane, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, said. “I read today that’s never happened before. There’s another thing — Americans have never gone back-to-back at No. 1 with Erik Johnson [last year to St. Louis] and hopefully myself. There are a lot of records to accomplish.”
Not only are there more American players being drafted high, but the athletes are coming from new places. New England, Minnesota and Michigan are still well-represented, but vanRiemsdyk is from Middletown, N.J., and was hooked on hockey by constantly watching a videotape that chronicled Wayne Gretzky’s career and through his father’s passion for the New York Rangers.
“New Jersey is a good example of a sleeper place for good players,” said Scott Borek, an associate head coach at the University of New Hampshire who recruited vanRiemsdyk to play for the Wildcats next season. “Hockey spread from New England into New York, but New Jersey has just become a player in the last five years. I think the Devils’ success also had something to do with that.”
Jonathan Blum, a defenseman expected to be selected in the second half of the first round, is from Long Beach, Calif. He played for the California Wave youth hockey program before joining Vancouver of the Western Hockey League. Several of Blum’s former Southern California teammates are on WHL and NCAA rosters. Even Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida are starting to produce hockey players. Just finding sheets of ice in these places would have been nearly impossible in the past.
“I think it is a few things. One is the emergence of roller hockey in the warmer climates,” Borek said. “I think that has a lot to do with the infatuation of hockey in those areas. Obviously the NHL has moved into these new types of areas. Then there is also the junior leagues and more opportunity. I’m not sure what came first; I think it was the roller hockey, then the NHL and then the junior leagues.”
A national identity
One place scouts flock to see some of the best American players is Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the U.S. National Team Development Program. The USNTDP, which began in 1997, selects between 22 and 24 of the best 16-year olds in the country (with an exceptional 15-year old on rare occasions) each year to come to Ann Arbor to live and train.
The players are put through a rigorous training program both on the ice and off. The students are enrolled at Ann Arbor High School and live with host families if their families do not move with them.
They are part of the under-17 national team, which plays a full schedule in the North American Hockey League (a Tier II junior league in which the other rosters mostly comprise players who are 18 or 19 years old). They also compete in three international tournaments against players of the same age.