For many years, people in Canada thought it was automatic: Any and every little boy WILL play hockey some day, in some way. The most recent statistics, however, prove otherwise.
In any business, you can't assume that you'll have clients or customers. If you do, odds are you'll be closing doors in a matter of time. When parents or guardians are spending as much as $12,000 on registration alone (as one of my former teammates told me yesterday ... what an exploitation of people and their hard-earned resources), you need to sell the game more than ever. The "build it and they will come" approach doesn't always ring true.
One key element when coining that phrase: You need to engage users. We all want to feel wanted and valued, like we matter in some small way - whether we're going to the Apple store or the local corner store to buy a product, or considering signing our son or daughter up to play hockey where the commitment level and resources involved are huge.
During my playing days, I spent the better part of 14 years living in the United States during the hockey season, and it's been interesting to witness that country making huge strides in the growth of the sport. From traditional hockey markets like New York and New Jersey, to non-traditional ones like Florida and North Carolina, the game of hockey has evolved dramatically.
Between an increase in travel, select, learn to play, and inner city programs, USA Hockey (our version of Hockey Canada) continues to make major strides. They set records in participation levels especially among "new" players 8-years-old and younger, where the number is over 100,000 kids. Sprinkle in many former NHLers volunteering and coaching like Scott Niedermayer, Keith Tkachuk, Pat LaFontaine, Keith Primeau, Mario Lemieux and Jamie Storr, among many others, lending their knowledge and experience from having played at the highest level. The icing sugar is that there are now more kids than ever from Florida, California, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas being drafted or playing with NHL clubs.
The NHL and its member clubs have also co-partnered their Hockey Is For Everyone campaign that serves all levels of hockey with the first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative.
The end result is that more kids from all parts of the country are playing and enjoying the game and living healthier lifestyles. This growth in U.S. hockey (yes, including the Capitals) has not gone unnoticed in Washington.
What had been a customary meet and greet photo op between the president and past Stanley Cup Champs of years past has evolved into A Hockey Caucus on Capitol Hill, which involves:
That's how far hockey has come in the U.S., and anyone involved in the game can enjoy the benefits of this growth. It's exciting to see, especially as Canadians who pride ourselves in pioneering the game.
Canada may not have to "sell" the game to its diehard fans, but engaging and endearing a new generation of fans is a smart way to not only maintain its base, but to grow it. We can continue to make history with a game that started on the most humble of ponds and lakes, but we'll have to make sure its participants and their passion for the game are not taken for granted. Can't wait to see where the game goes five years from now.
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