- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

During the winter months, the social calendar in Fergus Falls, Minn., has a blissful singularity to it. The late-model race track is closed. So are the parks, the golf course and the batting cages.

The tiny, snow-swept outpost on Interstate 94, about 50 miles from the North Dakota border, has a five-screen movie theater, a bowling alley and a hockey rink.

“If you’re in Fergus Falls on a Saturday night, you’ve got one option - go to the high school hockey game,” Jeff Nygaard said.

After playing all the way through high school, Nygaard moved away from the seat of Otter Tail County once: to attend William & Mary. He returned and took a job in Grand Forks, N.D., as a public relations director for the University of North Dakota. But the cold weather chased him and his wife away two years later to the D.C. area, home of warmer weather and more robust entertainment options than the municipal hockey rink.

“Once we decided to live out here, I never even thought about hockey,” he said. “I figured it was all over.”

But then something funny happened: Hockey followed him south.

Nygaard is now the executive director of the Washington Little Capitals, one of two Tier I youth hockey associations in the D.C. area. Since 2006, they have shared Kettler Capitals Iceplex with the NHL club.

And they have been benefiting from the Capitals’ popularity in plenty of other ways.

They’re not alone. The District is just one of the many hockey markets across the country where the recent arrival or rise of an NHL team has stoked a fire among young players.

Youth participation is up 28 percent in the District and 14 percent in Virginia in the last 10 years. It has made double-digit jumps in the Denver metro area, where the Colorado Avalanche moved in 1996, and in Florida, which added two NHL teams in the last 16 years.

It’s up 27 percent in Texas since the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999. In Georgia, it’s up a staggering 216 percent since that season, a year before the Atlanta Thrashers started play.

“It stems back to Wayne Gretzky’s times with the L.A. Kings and the growth of the game that came with that move,” University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “You look to Texas, there’s a direct correlation with the Dallas Stars [and the growth in youth participation]. You go to Colorado, it’s the Avalanche. If that’s just coincidence, it’s happened quite a few times over and over.”

And the numbers are impressive beyond the youth level. The Bay Area and Southern California are now cranking out college players. So is the District and its surrounding suburbs - 17 area natives are playing for Division I teams.

The growth has changed the game at every level, from the high-profile youth tournaments now handing out trophies to teams from Texas to college coaches making recruiting trips farther south than they ever have before - and trying to sell the game over Canadian major junior leagues to families who don’t live within 500 miles of a Division I program.

At the top of it all is the NHL, pointing to the growth as a measure of vindication for its oft-criticized strategy to move the game into the Sun Belt and quietly hoping that today’s youth hockey players turn into tomorrow’s season-ticket holders and television viewers.

But with overall hockey participation in the United States down nearly 3 percent from where it was 10 years ago, it remains to be seen whether the growth in the new markets is long-lasting or just a temporary bump that reflects the southern shift of America’s population and the novelty of the sport in those areas.

The NHL, however, will keep working to ensure it’s the former.

“[Youth hockey is] really a wonderful marketing opportunity. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to maintain ourselves in the top 10 in every revenue area,” said Jim Lites, president of Hicks Sports Marketing Group, the company that owns the Stars. “When we landed in ‘93, there were fans coming out to watch it, but they didn’t really understand it. They liked the fighting, but they didn’t understand the rules. It’s an easy way for us to get people acclimated to it.”

Youth becomes business

Of the “nontraditional areas” - which has become the industry term for hockey markets where the wintertime temperature is actually higher than the number of inches of snow on the ground - Dallas has seen possibly the most robust growth.

The Stars were one of the first teams into the Sun Belt, arriving in a market that Lites said had 150 youth players in 1993. Now there are more than 6,000 youth in Texas registered with USA Hockey, and the number of ice sheets in the area has jumped from two to 27, largely because of the team’s aggressive marketing strategy.

Lites said the organization has a hand in 17 of the area’s 27 rinks. With an infusion of cash through its partnership with local soft drink bottler Dr Pepper, it bought the land for two rinks and purchased two rinks out of distress from local banks. The Stars also run a variety of youth leagues in the area.

The plan has worked so well that Lites has consulted with front office officials from Anaheim, Florida, Nashville and even Pittsburgh about implementing similar plans in their markets.

It’s also filled an important gap in the newer markets. Unlike Minnesota, Michigan or Massachusetts, most warm-weather NHL markets don’t have high school hockey, which means no municipal rinks and no taxpayer dollars to finance them.

That has left developers to run their rinks as businesses - a dicey proposition given the unwieldy expenses of making ice and precious few ways to sell it during the summer.

The Ashburn Ice House, which opened in Northern Virginia 10 years ago, is tucked into the middle of a bustling strip mall and is trimmed with almost every imaginable source of profit, from a restaurant, an arcade and party room to a pro shop where families can pick up an Alex Ovechkin jersey while their kids get fitted for new skates.

Youth hockey, then, becomes a necessity for rink owners to sell the game along with developing its future.

“Where you make or break your business is how you do in the spring and summer - are you offering camps where kids can work on skill development and have recreational playtime?” said Troy MacCormick, who is the rink manager at Ashburn Ice House and the hockey director for its affiliated youth program, the Ashburn Xtreme. “You really earn your dollars in how well you market and fill your ice in spring.”

Diversity helps development

As cumbersome as the business side of developing the game has been, it has caused a marked change on the ice.

Of the 1,575 players on Division I rosters this season, Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said 42 are from California, a state that has overtaken Wisconsin as a source of college hockey talent in recent years. Ten Division I players are from Texas, and a combined 11 are from Oregon and Washington - two states without an NHL or major-college program.

The University of North Dakota, which has reached the last four NCAA Frozen Fours, sits minutes from the Minnesota border and is just over an hour from Canada, has a player from the Atlanta suburbs on a roster primarily supplied by those two hockey hotbeds. Defending champion Boston College has a freshman from Florida alongside its healthy complement of players from New England.

The U.S. National Team Development Program, a prestigious hockey academy for high schoolers in Ann Arbor, Mich., has 12 players from the Mountain or Pacific time zones on its two teams this year. And the Dallas Stars Midget Major AAA team is ranked No. 10 nationally, two spots behind Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the Minnesota prep school that produced NHL stars Zach Parise and Sidney Crosby.

The shift has changed the game for two groups: college coaches who are recruiting the new areas and local youth coaches who no longer have to convince players not to move to the Midwest or New England to get noticed.

“Growing up in a nontraditional area doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it anymore,” Nygaard said. “The skill level has improved everywhere.”

The task, instead, becomes a bit of a sell job; the college game is still confined north of the Mason-Dixon Line, so many recruits haven’t considered it over Canadian major junior leagues as a viable path to the NHL.

“When you’re recruiting from areas that don’t know college from juniors, sometimes you’re a little bit late,” Bertagna said. “People make decisions at an earlier age these days, and when we can’t talk to [younger] players, it limits us in ways junior hockey’s not limited. I understand [the NCAA] doesn’t want kids with recruiters, but some kids are being forced to make decisions when they don’t have all the information.”

Professional teams have also noticed the difference. Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Tom Lynn said the team’s scouting budget has increased to cover a larger area, and Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee has even seen an uptick in areas with minor league teams.

“Kids in those markets are playing as well,” McPhee said. “It’s been all good for hockey.”

Will it last?

The Sun Belt boom is still subject to a few questions - like how much of the growth is boosted by transplants and how much of it will translate to bigger markets for the NHL once youth players grow up.

Don Girard, the president of the Dallas Junior Hockey Association, said a sizable number of the 350 players in its leagues have moved from the north and brought the game with them. He also pointed to the Stars’ still-flagging TV ratings as a sign the game isn’t yet fully healthy in the Dallas area.

”I did the math on what the ratings were from when the Stars played the Red Wings in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals [last spring], and it came out to 80,000-something households,” he said. “It’s unfortunately not there yet, but I can’t see that it won’t grow as more kids go on to play in juniors or college.”

That’s the goal for the NHL, where the Phoenix Coyotes are on the verge of bankruptcy and Carolina, Atlanta and Nashville consistently languish in the league’s bottom third in attendance.

Moreover, some of the growth in nontraditional markets has plateaued as rinks reach their capacity and the economic downturn chokes off cash to build new ones.

“I don’t know if you could grow the sport out here unless you could add more ice,” Nygaard said. “USA Hockey is big on their growth initiative, but they kind of overlooked the fact that we’re full 5 a.m. to 2 a.m.”

But if all it takes to sustain the growth is more ice, it’s also a symptom of a good problem.

It means the only thing holding hockey back is a supply shortage in areas where the issue used to be demand.

”It’s a no-brainer. All the rinks in the D.C. area are affiliated with the Caps,” MacCormick said. “You’ve just got to give it a little more time. These are going to be lifelong kids. They’re living hockey every day. Those kids are going to be lifelong hockey fans.”

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