As first posted on Kukla’sKorner.com:
When one thinks of hockey, one probably thinks of places like Canada (obviously), the Northeast, the Northwest, upper Midwest and so on and so forth.
One does not, however, think of places like Florida, Phoenix, Nashville, Los Angeles or San Jose. With warm climates such as those, who would think that hockey could be so successful?
Well, the above-mentioned areas have done the unthinkable and have all had various degrees of success not only in the National Hockey League, but also in developing the game in surrounding areas. This all starts from a place of building a winning NHL franchise.
In fact, all five of cities/states mentioned above all had NHL teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, with the Los Angeles Kings getting to the Stanley Cup Final, where they will take on the New Jersey Devils.
So, why are these unsuspecting hockey markets having success? For starters, consistency winning games and getting to the postseason is a major factor.
For example, take a look at the Nashville Predators. The Predators have made the postseason every season but one (2008-09) since the lockout and 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 not only throughout Nashville, but throughout other southern states in the U.S. as well. In an article for the Huntsville Times web site, 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 Chris Parker, VP and Chief of Marketing for the Predators. “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 Predators 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 are very much like the Predators in terms of success. 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 grow junior hockey in the area. In fact, many of the alumni of the San Jose Jr. Sharks are finding success in NCAA college hockey.
Sharks’ assistant general manager, Joe Will, believes that the success of 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 San Jose Sharks Assistant General Manager Joe 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 a whole ownership situation right now, they certainly 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 for the first time in team history before losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals.
The Coyotes’ success in the NHL has inspired kids in Arizona to start getting into hockey. On AZfamily.com, writer Brandy Aguilar wrote that the number of kids playing hockey in the state has really 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 success of the Predators, Sharks, or Coyotes but as an NHL franchise, they have not been exactly terrible. In fact, the team won the Southeast Division this past year and went to the Cup Final in 1996.
With that said, it is what the team has done to get hockey popular in the state that is impressive. Popular Panthers’ beat writer for The Miami Herald, George Richards, wrote about this close to a year ago on 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 team that really started it all when it comes to hockey succeeding in strange places and that is the Los Angeles Kings. It started for the Kings when the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings back in 1988.
As soon as Gretzky arrived to the Sun Belt, California started to look at hockey in a much different way. It was not just a casual game anymore and rather, it was one that was taken up to not only have fun in, but to have success in as well.
“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 having advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1993 season, Peters says the popularity of the game will 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 LA 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 could use all the bandwagon or non-traditional fans it can to help continue to grow the game of hockey in strange places.
On top of his work for Kukla’s Korner, Patrick covers the NHL for Sportsnet.ca and Liam Maguire’s Ultimate Hockey Web Site.
Prior to writing for the above-mentioned outlets, Hoffman’s musings have been published on the Red Light District Hockey Blog, TheHockeyNews.com, The Fourth Period, Spector’s Hockey, Hokeja Vestnesis, Blueshirt Bulletin, SNYRangersBlog.com, here on NHL Home Ice from 2008 to 2009, as well as a slew of others.