Hockey is the ultimate team game, as demonstrated by the inspiring run by the 2010 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team and the recent success of the Los Angeles Kings, led by American stars Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick.
Off the ice, that same spirit of teamwork has helped USA Hockey and the National Hockey League to grow the game through a series of bold initiatives.
“We have always worked together, but it’s been much more formalized in the last three years, and much stronger all the way through,” said Pat Kelleher, assistant executive director of Membership Development for USA Hockey.
To build on past successes, representatives from 14 of the 23-U.S. based NHL franchises attended this year’s USA Hockey Annual Congress to discuss a variety of topics ranging from implementing American Development Model initiatives to expanding adult programs.
By working together to grow the game from the top down and the grassroots level on up has proven to be an invaluable tool for USA Hockey to open the game up to youngsters from coast to coast.
“[NHL teams] do a ton of stuff to help us promote and reach those people that we may or may not be able to reach without their support. It’s huge,” Kelleher said.
The importance of the relationship is not only acknowledged by USA Hockey and its Affiliates, it is a key component to the NHL’s marketing efforts, as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out during the USA Hockey 75th Anniversary Gala.
“We know all too well the strength at the NHL level depends on USA Hockey,” Bettman said as he saluted the hundreds of volunteers in attendance.
Through the leadership of executive director Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey presented the NHL with a plan to help grow the sport throughout the United States through membership development in 2009 and showed how the game could be improved through the creation of the American Development Model. In turn, the NHL’s board of governors has invested millions of dollars into programs that help USA Hockey to take these types of programs to an even higher level.
Ken Martin, the NHL vice president of community affairs, explained how the NHL values its relationship with USA Hockey and how committed the league is towards the growth of American hockey.
“In the last three years the league has committed more financial dollars to grow the game, not only because it’s the right thing for us to do, but it is important for our business,” Martin said.
“It’s an important relationship to us. We understand that USA Hockey is the governing body, so they are experts about how to grow the game.”
One major initiative that has been a catalyst for growth has been Try Hockey For Free events that use the marketing muscle of the NHL clubs and the grassroots know-how of USA Hockey to get kids on the ice for a fun and cost-effective way to try the game. This year, more than 17,000 kids took to the ice for the first time, many doing so thanks to the support of NHL teams.
Rick Nadeau, director of fan development for the N.Y. Rangers helped spearhead an effort to get 1,100 kids onto the ice on Nov. 5, as part of the NHL/USAH Come Play Hockey Month. One of the many perks was every kid walked away with a Ranger-branded hockey stick.
“It’s an important relationship to us. We understand that USA Hockey is the governing body, so they are the experts about how to grow the game.”- NHL’s Ken Martin
“In essence it gives them the opportunity to play the sport in their basements and in the street and wherever they go,” Nadeau said. “We put the one tool needed to play the sport of hockey in their hands, and that is important to us.”
The Nashville Predators is one of a number of NHL clubs that has worked tirelessly with grassroots associations to grow the game in the southern half of the nation by breaking down the barriers to getting more kids to try hockey.
“Hockey with Heroes is an opportunity for us to go into local rinks and take over a house-league practice for an evening,” said Andee Boiman, director of youth hockey and development for the Predators.
A big part of their success, Boiman said, was the implementation of ADM principles to create fun practices that cater to the greatest number of participants.
“We will have an entire Mite division come on the ice, but how do you put on a quality clinic with 60-to-80 kids at the 8 & Under level?” Boiman said. “That’s where the ADM comes in and helps out our staff.”
Of course it helps when kids have the opportunity to learn the game from their favorite players, such as Predators Matt Halischuk and Gabriel Bourque, during a clinic at the Bridgestone Arena. The registration fee also came with a ticket to a future Preds’ game, which helps add to the already faithful fan base.
Kelleher believes having the NHL and its teams support the ADM is influential in growing the sport nationally.
“The ADM and cross-ice hockey are cultural changes in the way we play hockey,” Kelleher said. “So to have NHL teams and their players and coaches tell parents that this is the way to go, it helps drive home the positive points of our programs.”
According to everyone involved, this relationship has only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to growing the game, which bodes well for the future.
“Some of the things you will see from us [NHL] going forward is player messaging and how we implement the ADM into the bigger growth of our game,” Martin said.
“The more we can grow the game and the more kids participate in the sport the better it’s going to be for us.”