The St. Louis Blues recently helped break ground on a new community arena that will house four NHL-size rinks in the suburb of Maryland Heights, while also investing money in a new rink project in nearby Chesterfield. The Maryland Heights project will be known as the St. Louis Community Ice Center and will be used by many hockey organizations, from the Blues to Lindenwood University (which has a D1 women’s team) to the St. Louis Jr. Blues AAA program.
While the Blues have been in the NHL since 1967, grassroots hockey in St. Louis has really taken off in the past decade.
The watershed moment was the 2016 NHL draft, when five kids from St. Louis went in the first round: Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, Logan Brown, Luke Kunin and Trent Frederic. In Tkachuk and Brown, you had second-generation players whose fathers (Keith Tkachuk and Jeff Brown) played for St. Louis and Blues alumni have been key to the grassroots around the city, with everyone from Al MacInnis to the Cavallini brothers also chipping in to various degrees.
As hockey continues to grow in the United States, it will be interesting to see which cities become hubs. St. Louis bid for the 2018 world juniors, but lost out to Buffalo. Attendance was a real problem and while the Sabres do a fantastic job of hosting events, there was definitely some fan fatigue in Buffalo (two of the past three world junior tourneys had games in Toronto, drawing off the same Southern Ontario fan base). We know that Buffalo supports hockey, but it has become clear that some other towns need to start hosting showcase events in the U.S.
To that end, the All-American Prospects Game will be held in Minnesota this year after two straight seasons in Buffalo, where attendance was also shallow. This is a good move.
But where else can hockey go in the United States? Detroit is a traditional hotspot and with the Red Wings’ new arena, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more big events there in the near future. Boston is a huge NCAA market, as are Minnesota and North Dakota. Chicago seems ripe for more action, but I’d like to see the University of Illinois commit to D1 hockey to help things get to the next level (and yes, I know the Illini don’t play in Chicago, but the state needs a major college team).
In terms of NHL markets, I wonder when we’ll see a “non-traditional” town take a crack at something big.
Dallas has always been a model for growing the grassroots game since the Stars came to town and began building rinks all over Texas. The Arizona Coyotes have been active lately, tailoring their efforts to the locals with a number of DEK outdoor rinks, the latest coming to Tucson, where the franchise’s AHL affiliate plays. And the announcement of a six-team NHL rookie tournament in Vegas this year is very exciting.
That tourney will move to California next fall, with the Anaheim Ducks hosting. All three California teams have been great for the grassroots, establishing high school leagues up and down the coast. Those programs are really gaining steam, with Santa Margarita HS and Anaheim Jr. Ducks alum Ryan Johnson recently committing to the University of Minnesota. The young defenseman is also a prospect for the 2019 draft.
For me, the next two world junior tournaments in the U.S. will be interesting. The nation is slated to host in 2025 and 2030 and where those events are held will say a lot about where USA Hockey sees the game developing in certain markets. Do they go conservative for one (Detroit, for example) and outside-the-box for another? Can’t imagine too many reporters or travelling fans would object to Los Angeles and Anaheim splitting a bid for a July-in-Christmas holiday.
A city like St. Louis splits the middle. You won’t get that vaunted border closeness with Canada that Buffalo and North Dakota had in the past, but maybe that’s overblown. With the way the game is growing, as long as you held some games in a smaller arena – say, the St. Louis Community Ice Center – the Blues’ NHL arena could probably get decent attendance for any Team USA or Canada game, plus medal round contests.
Is there risk? Sure. But in growing the game, you have to take chances and enough organizations have put in the work at the grassroots level to deserve a chance.