Friday, June 22, 2007

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.

“We try to build a base with them. It is really three phases — social, academic and hockey,” said Scott Monaghan, director of hockey operations for the USNTDP.

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.

“Early on everyone is homesick, and it is all brand new,” said vanRiemsdyk, who along with Kane is an USNTDP alumni. “You’re training five days a week and getting stronger, but you’re constantly tired. You just keep pushing through, and there is a point probably in November where it all starts to become part of your routine and it ends up being the best thing for you.”

During the second year in the program, players are a part of the U-18 national team. They play between 20 and 25 games against Division I and top Division III college programs. They also play in some NAHL games and have more success, even if the players are still older.

There are also more international tournaments, including the U-18 world championships, and for a select few like Kane and vanRiemsdyk, the U-20 world junior championships.

“Throughout the two years there is a heavy focus on power skating and developing their stride on the ice,” Monaghan said. “Off the ice there is a lot of power lifting and isometrics. There is a lot of focus on proper stretching and conditioning. There is also a focus on eating properly and nutrition.”

Another avenue for junior hockey players is the U.S. Hockey League, which was conceived in the late 1970s but only recently became a strong option for players to develop. The USHL is a 12-team league with franchises throughout the Midwest that play 60-game regular-season schedules.

The USHL renaissance started five years ago when USA Hockey classified the league as the only Tier I Junior A League in the country. One reason the USHL can compete with Tier I Junior A hockey in Canada is because players on USHL teams keep their college eligibility, while those who play in the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League do not.

“It is a very good league,” said Ross Mahoney, the Caps’ director of amateur scouting. “They’ve got some great facilities. The kids are coming from all over the place. There is good coaching. The league has really improved.”

There were 23 players from the USHL drafted in 2005, including Caps first-rounder Joe Finley. This year four USHL players are in the NHL Central Scouting department’s top 30 North American skaters and two more in the top 60. The league is considering expansion outside the Midwest.

“The league has gotten younger, and the players have gotten better,” USHL president Gino Gasparini said. “We are a fan-driven league. We average close to 3,000 fans per game [2,921 in 2006-07]. We’re a league that is in the business of development, but we’re also a business. It is an amateur league, but it is very much like a professional league from a business sense.”

What lies ahead

The question remains: Can the phenomenon of more participation and better talent help the NHL in the United States?

“It’s not that American fans can’t identify with the great players from Canada or Europe. Anyone can watch a guy like [Alex] Ovechkin and appreciate him,” Monaghan said. “[But] I think it would be help the average American sports fan to have more quality American players to identify with.”

NHL expansion to new markets in the Southeast and Southwest has helped stimulate some of the growth in youth hockey, but how does that translate to more Americans tuning in? New Hampshire’s Borek and the USHL’s Gasparini both think having more people identify with these players at a younger stage could help.

“A guy who might be our most famous athlete is [Buffalo Sabres forward] Thomas Vanek, and he played in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for three years,” Gasparini said. “I think the [NHL] Center Ice people quadrupled their sales in Sioux Falls just because of him. That’s commonplace in our league when our fans watch these kids play.”

Added Borek: “I don’t think the NHL has taken advantage of what the college game could do for them. Erik Johnson is a good example. When people in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, turn on a St. Louis Blues game next year, it will be because of the Gopher connection. It won”t be because of any NHL connection.

“I do think it is kind of strange that pro hockey has helped youth hockey but it hasn’t gone the other way in some places. Having the NHL in Atlanta has helped the youth hockey, but why hasn”t that in turn helped the NHL in that market? I think it is something the NHL needs to examine closer.”

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