Here in Canada, it’s hockey, hockey and more hockey.
South of the border, however, hockey just isn’t as coveted as it is here at home. That being said, the sport is succeeding in some odd places south of the border.
Places like Florida, Phoenix, Nashville, Los Angeles or San Jose seem like unlikely areas for hockey success. Despite the adversity that many of these hockey teams have faced, all have had various degrees of success, not only in the National Hockey League, but also in developing the game in the surrounding community.
This all starts with building a winning NHL franchise. In fact, all five of cities/states mentioned featured teams in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So, why are these unsuspecting hockey markets having success? For starters consistency, winning games and making the postseason are all major factors.
The Nashville Predators are a great example. The Predators have made the postseason every season but one (2008-09) since the lockout and have posted impressive point totals of 106 (2005-06), 110 (2006-07), and 104 (2011-12).
The Predators’ success on the ice has helped hockey grow immensely throughout Nashville, as well as throughout other southern states. In an article for the Huntsville Times, Predators’ VP and Chief of Marketing Chris Parker spoke about the Predators’ role in the growth of hockey in other southern states.
"There’s more and more participation in hockey now than there ever had been," said Parker. "There’s more people moving into these markets from transplanted areas where hockey is more prevalent. Hockey continues to grow, and it is sustained growth."
This season, the Preds took an interest in helping out the University of Alabama-Huntsville’s Division I hockey team along with its status as a Division I hockey school.
"We’re very focused on anything we can do to help UAH maintain their Division I status,” Parker said. “Ultimately, the Predators want to pursue the Frozen Four, and you have to have a sponsor organization, just like UAH is doing it in Tampa this year. Having UAH, with its proximity to Nashville, would make for a logical and perfect partnership on our pursuit of a Frozen Four in the coming years.”
The San Jose Sharks’ success is comparable to the Predators’. The Sharks are a perennial postseason contender and while they have yet to win hockey’s Holy Grail, they have certainly come close.
In San Jose, the Sharks’ success has helped junior hockey grow in the area. In fact, many of the alumni of the San Jose Junior Sharks are finding success in NCAA college hockey.
Sharks’ assistant general manager Joe Will believes the success of former Junior Sharks has been a contributing factor to the growth of hockey in northern California.
"I think this is a tremendous story and a great source of pride for everyone in this organization and Northern California hockey," said Will. "The level of youth hockey in the Bay Area is improving and the bar will continue to be set higher. People are noticing how many high-caliber hockey players are coming out of California, and that’s a compliment to both the players themselves and the coaches and administrators."
While the Phoenix Coyotes are going through an unforunateownership situation right now, they have not let it impact their play on the ice. The team is coming off their first Pacific Division title in franchise history while also getting past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in team history.
The Coyotes’ success in the NHL has inspired kids in Arizona to start playing hockey. On AZfamily.com, writer Brandy Aguilar wrote that the number of kids playing hockey in the state has grown because of the Coyotes, in particular the Phoenix Coyotes Jr. Hockey travel team, which is headed up by Mike DeAngelis.
"We’ve had NHL draft picks and there have been tons of guys who have gone to a Division 1 college," DeAngelis said. "Our program has been fortunate enough to have three players sign that came through our program in the last few years, who signed Division 1 scholarship packages."
The Florida Panthers may not have had the achievements of the Predators, Sharks, or Coyotes but the team has experienced success. The Panthers won the Southeast Division this past year and were able to reach the Cup Final in 1996.
With that said, it is what the team has done to make hockey popular in the state that is impressive. Popular Panthers’ beat writer for The Miami Herald George Richards, wrote about this topic close to a year ago for his blog On Frozen Pond.
"You are seeing more and more Florida-born players," said Scott Luce, the Panthers director of amateur scouting. "It really is a thrill to see all these kids from Florida playing at this level. I may not live in Florida, but I’ve worked for the Panthers for 10 years now. I love seeing guys from Plantation, Coral Gables on rosters. And I watch those guys. I have a vested interest in them. They grew up as fans of our team."
Lastly, we have the American team that really started it all, the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings success really kicked off when “the Great One”, Wayne Gretzky, was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings in 1988.
As soon as Gretzky arrived at the Sun Belt, California started to look at hockey in a much different way. Hockey became a sport that was taken up by young people not only have fun in, but to have success in as well.
Chris Peters, author of the United States of Hockey Blog, says the popularity of hockey in California is staggering.
"Since 1990-91, California’s hockey-playing population has grown by a staggering 361.8 percent. As of 2010-11, there were 22,305 USA Hockey-registered players, the highest total in the history of California hockey. That number also gives California the seventh-highest hockey-playing population in the United States, trailing traditional hockey hotbeds of Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Illinois."
With the Kings winning their first Cup in franchise history, Peters says the popularity of the game will only continue to grow in California.
"For hockey fans that have been with the Kings for years and years, get ready for a lot of new people pretending they know what L.A. Kings hockey is all about. Bandwagon fans can be annoying for the die-hards that have been through the thick and thin and the Burger King jerseys, but it is important to welcome these bandwagon new fans. Today’s bandwagon fans are tomorrow’s die-hards and quite possibly tomorrow’s youth and adult hockey players and hockey moms and dads."
With the way hockey is portrayed these days, the game can use all of the bandwagon and non-traditional fans it can to help continue to grow the game of hockey in unlikely places.