As the grassroots game continues to grow in America, so does the support structure for hockey. Here are some of the most important ongoing projects that will help the game in the U.S.
Say hello to the American League’s Pacific Division. The dramatic shift that will see five AHL teams shifted to California not only shakes up the continent’s second-best circuit, but will also have big ramifications for how the game is embraced by the population in the Golden State.
“Hockey is growing in California and the West Coast,” said Anaheim GM Bob Murray at the official press conference. “This is going to take it one step further.”
From a grassroots perspective, the Pacific Division will nurture more hockey fans in a state that is already producing some pretty nice talent. Because it’s not just important that kids can watch players and prospects in the process of achieving NHL dreams, but that cities such as San Diego and Stockton get anchor teams that hopefully help the kids themselves start to play the game locally.
The AHL announcement is one of just several big projects on the go that will help the game as a whole. Here are four others to keep an eye on:
Tampa Bay hosting the 2016 Frozen Four
This will be the second time that Tampa hosts the NCAA championship after a successful venture in 2012. But the commitment to hockey in Florida goes well beyond just hosting events. The NHL’s Lightning have done a lot of grassroots work lately, with former GM Jay Feaster earning a lot of praise in hockey circles for his efforts.
Florida boasted nearly 12,000 registered players last season, good for 15th in the nation. And those minor hockey teams are beginning to churn out top talent: Jakob Chychrun, who went first overall in the OHL draft this past summer, cut his teeth with the Florida Jr. Everblades.
The race in Illinois
One of the most hockey-mad states in the union doesn’t have a Division 1 team right now, which is madness. But meetings are taking place and the hopes are that Northwestern University or the University of Illinois will take the plunge on a team soon. I’ve been told the Chicago Blackhawks are helping open doors and that’s great news for either Big Ten school.
Legal tussling amongst developers stalled things, the massive ice facility slated for the Bronx in New York is making progress, though construction won’t start until 2016. What the Mark Messier-led initiative will provide upon completion however, is huge for the game. Despite a mammoth population, New York City has long been underrepresented in hockey, even though the game thrives at the grassroots level on Long Island and the suburbs.
The nine rinks at Kingsbridge, not to mention the New York Islanders moving to Brooklyn next year, will do wonders for the grassroots game in North America’s biggest city.
Arizona State goes Division 1
Following the path blazed by Penn State, Arizona State recently announced that its hockey team would be jumping up to Division 1, spawning more than a few jokes about how easy recruiting will be in the sun-kissed locale.
But most importantly, Arizona State’s ascension has awakened interest in hockey by the Pac-12 conference, where the Sun Devils play their other collegiate sports. According to sources I’ve spoken with, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks have been doing work opening doors for potential California schools who could go Division 1 (UCLA, USC, Cal and Stanford are all Pac-12 members).
This is exciting for the entire hockey world, as the Pac-12 is a power conference, much like the Big Ten – which got to six teams and an automatic Frozen Four bid thanks to Penn State. Naturally there’s a lot of work to do in finding five more playmates for Arizona State, but it’s good to know the Pac-12 is interested.
And with Arizona native Auston Matthews a potential first overall pick for the 2016 NHL draft, it’s clear that the grassroots game has paid dividends already in the desert. Having college hockey in the state will only make that stronger.