Just Peachy

 

When the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, some wondered if hockey could survive in Georgia. Five years have passed, and the reports of the impending demise of the sport in the Peach State have not come to bear fruit.

Not only are more players involved in the sport today, but new rinks offer greater opportunities to play and more kids are playing at a higher level than ever before.

Chris Powers is a director with USA Hockey's Southeastern District. He recalls when it was first announced in 1997 that Atlanta would be getting another NHL team, there was a lot of interest and excitement. Around that time, more ice surfaces were being built in the area, including a new double-sheet facility called The Cooler.

A second sheet of ice was also added to the Duluth Ice Forum to accommodate the practice needs of the new NHL team.

This created additional ice for kids and adults to get involved in the sport, which helped the city deal with the growth that came with the Thrashers coming to town,” Powers says.

Before the Thrashers played its first season in 1999, there were just 911 registered players throughout the state. That number more than doubled by the 2003-04 season, and surpassed 2,000 players just three years later.

Despite the predictions of impending doom brought on by the Thrashers' departure, the number of amateur players registered with USA Hockey has remained surprisingly consistent.

 

Strong showings by the Atlanta Fire and Atlanta Phoenix at USA Hockey National Championships show the talent being produced in Georgia.Strong showings by the Atlanta Fire and Atlanta Phoenix at USA Hockey National Championships show the talent being produced in Georgia."Our retention rate has been really good,” says Powers, who is also an American Development Model coordinator for the local affiliate. "We're doing a good job once we get kids in of keeping them, which is a real positive thing.”

Part of the reason for steady growth has been the rise in the popularity of the sport among adult hockey players. Atlanta currently boasts one of the largest adult leagues in the country.

Another positive, Powers points out, is that two new rinks have been built in the Atlanta area since the Thrashers left, and one more will be constructed next year. Improvements are also being made to the existing facilities.

To introduce more kids to the sport, local associations have embraced USA Hockey's "Try Hockey for Free” events, which are held twice a year. During the hourlong event held in November and February, kids ages 4 to 9 are provided loaner equipment and taught the basics of the game. Powers says roughly 60 kids turn out at the bigger facilities.

 

"When kids can come out and see the game at a high level,
it makes it more interesting,”

-Joe Gelderman

 

And while grassroots recruitment efforts are the lifeblood for any association's growth plans, as Powers points out, "there's nothing like a pro player wearing his jersey on the ice to really hook kids.”

That's where the ECHL's Atlanta Gladiators, Boston Bruin's affiliate and the state's lone professional hockey team, have provided a huge assist.

Joe Gelderman is the Gladiators' vice president and general manager of Business Operations. Through his efforts, the team works hard to welcome youngsters into the game by allowing them to skate on the team's ice on Saturdays and invites them back for the game that night.

"When kids can come out and see the game at a high level, it makes it more interesting,” Gelderman says. "That helps grow the number of kids who are going to the Try Hockey events and starting in house leagues. And growing those numbers is where it's most important.”

The Gladiators also encourage their players to be active in the youth hockey community. Captain Derek Nesbitt, for example, is the director of player development for the Atlanta Fire, and head coach Andy Brandt is the youth hockey director at the Alpharetta Family Skate Center.

 

Retired NHL players are also helping to develop young players. Dan Bouchard, who played on Georgia's first NHL team, the Atlanta Flames, coached Life University's men's hockey club to five ACHA Division II championships and is also a goaltending instructor with the Atlanta Fire. Former NHLers Scott Pearson and Randy Boyd, and Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine are also coaches in the Fire organization.

Retired NHLer Yan Kaminsky, meanwhile, is the hockey director at the Ice Forum facilities in Duluth and Kennesaw. He has seen the tremendous development of hockey in Georgia since first getting involved 16 years ago. Through the years, the Ice Forum has created programs ranging from cross-ice and Learn to Skate all the way up Tier I AAA.

And that has created a springboard for local players to compete at the highest levels of the game.

"A lot of kids from Georgia are playing college and Junior hockey,” Kaminsky says.

Youth hockey teams from around the state are also making their mark on the national stage. The Fire won the Youth Tier II 12 & Under USA Hockey National Championship in 2010, and the Atlanta Phoenix (pictured below) captured the Tier II 14U crown in 2013.

That type of success has also positively impacted what's going on in other parts of the South.

"What's good in Florida is good for Georgia, and what's good in Georgia is good for Carolina,” Powers says. "For Atlanta kids, when they see kids from the South making it, it's validating.”

Despite the doom and gloom predictions that the game would take a downturn after the Thrashers' migration to Winnipeg, the future looks sunny. Participation remains strong as associations embrace new membership initiatives and the addition of new rinks create more places for kids to play.

All of that means that things are just peachy for hockey in the Peach State.


By Debra Rughoo

 

Issue: 
2016-10

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