America's Amateur Hockey Market Thrives in Uncertain Times
Ice hockey has always been a bit of a hard sell in the United States. In fact, it took nothing short of a "miracle" to introduce the game just 26 years ago to the vast majority of Americans pledging allegiance only to baseball, football and basketball—typically in that order. If frozen ponds mark the limits of hockey's natural range, then its traditional appeal can be said to stretch to only a handful of regions. It's expensive to play, both from the entrepreneur's and the athlete's perspective. Spectator interest, a different animal altogether but relevant to the sport inhabiting the national psyche, is limited at best; while arenas fill up with diehard fans, living rooms remain tuned to "Survivor" reruns even during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It was for these reasons that, when the National Hockey League endured a 301-day lockout that consumed the entire 2004-05 season, pundits from age 10 on up predicted that a sort of nuclear winter would descend over the entire sport. From the fickle teenaged player ("I think the players are being selfish, and right now I'm into lacrosse instead") to the peeved hockey dad ("I'll go back, but I think your fringe fan isn't going. I firmly believe the NHL has had it"), the voices in the national press added fuel to the fear. And as this was happening literal fuel costs spiked, boosting the cost of ice rink operation, which in many areas meant a corresponding jump in the cost of ice time.
Had America cooled to hockey? Hardly.
"Two years ago we were paying $200 an hour for ice and we thought that was absolutely outrageous, and now we're paying $350 an hour," says Linda Belanger, president of the Florida Beaches Women's Hockey Club, which now practices and plays at the for-profit IncredibleICE in Coral Springs, practice home of the NHL's Florida Panthers. "But oddly enough, our numbers in our club have doubled during that time. It has been difficult, but somehow, some way, we're growing."
Things are much the same at the Greeley Ice Haus, a year-old municipal facility on Colorado's Front Range. "Our schedule, starting in the first part of September all the way until May, is as tight as a drum," says Greeley's manager, Jon Larson. "There's nothing open. We have youth hockey teams coming from more than an hour away, teams that had been using rinks down in the Denver area until they booked out. There are actually six high school teams that call the Ice Haus home. It's awesome."
As negotiations dragged on between the NHL owners and players, some around the sport's periphery lost and some gained. There were more winners, it turned out, than losers. The lockout was quite good for many minor league teams, for example, which were able to hold on to their best athletes instead of sending them up the chain to parent clubs and even attract the services of some NHL players. Just the existence of the lower leagues, with their fan-friendly atmospheres and lower prices, were enough to spur a rise in interest and game attendance. Even in Canada, where no one was predicting the death of hockey, the lockout produced intimations of a boost in federal "investment" in other levels of hockey as a response to the pro-hockey impasse. (When Prime Minister Paul Martin's suggestion to this effect was met with questions from reporters as to whether this meant actual funding, he spoke of the Canadian government "encouraging participation" in recreational hockey and other sports, which is apparently where the effort ended.)
At the youth and amateur level in the U.S., the lockout had its pluses and minuses beyond the (presumed harmful) effect on interest in the sport. In the shadow of the hockey-less Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, teams in the Southern California Amateur Hockey Association found dollars scarce since they could no longer rely on Mighty Ducks tickets or concessions-stand sales for their fund-raising programs. A report in The Orange County Register told of one team that was able to fund just one scholarship for the season, and another whose forays into selling Long Beach Ice Dogs tickets—even with that minor league team's 16.5 percent jump in attendance during the lockout—netted little in the way of green.
Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, notes that hockey programs are, generally speaking, both ground-up and trickle-down in their relation to the NHL and national teams. "The NHL and the Olympics are aspiration levels for young people who participate in the sport," Ogrean says. "The NHL also has enormous promotional value; there is nothing that puts hockey on SportsCenter or in the sports section of the local newspaper like the NHL playing and not being in a lockout. So for a variety of reasons, we're very glad that the lockout didn't go into a second season. Yet, we could point to some gains that we accrued because of the one-year lockout. For example, the NHL was not playing when we hosted the world junior championships in Grand Forks, S.D. As a result, we were able to get several games on ESPN, which would never have occurred during a regular NHL season. So from a visibility standpoint, it was terrific."
Belanger's club team experienced the good and the bad. "The connection to an NHL team definitely helps," she says, beginning with the exposure that amateur clubs get when they take the ice between periods of Panthers games. "People seeing us playing—that allowed us to reach a whole bunch of women and get them to come out. So that was something we missed. But at the same time, the wonderful thing about the lockout was that with the Panthers not practicing it freed up some ice time." If there was ice time available, it didn't last long, according to Tim Kyrkostas, manager of hockey operations at IncredibleICE, a facility that has made a habit of benefiting from others' misfortunes.
"Last year we had a major hurricane, Wilma, that took out one of the area's rinks, and we probably gained from that," Kyrkostas says. "But more than that, I think when the NHL returned with its new rules in place the sport of hockey was a better product, and as a result there's a big, big buzz around the game. Our grassroots programs have been growing. Business has never been better."
Belanger agrees that the NHL's decision to open up the game—stressing speed and playing skills by eliminating the red line and cracking down on stick fouls, clutching and grabbing in front of the net, and obstruction in general—is the best thing to emerge from the wreckage of the 2004-05 season. "It's a much better sport to watch now," she says. "The game stunk. All you were doing was watching guys hold onto each other, and every time they tried to do something fancy they got checked. Now these guys who are actually creative can make some moves, and that's what makes it exciting. Last season was the most exciting ever, and this season will be even better."
"We're at an exciting time in the sport, in our country and internationally," agrees Dave Fischer, USA Hockey's director of media and public relations. The overwhelmingly positive reception afforded the new rules spurred the governing body's board of directors—as well as the International Ice Hockey Federation, Hockey Canada, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association—to follow suit this summer. Fischer, who credits the "ultra-positive" lockout with leading to the changes, expects that the new rules will take a while to impact the culture of youth and amateur hockey—and bristles a bit at critics who wondered why USA Hockey didn't act before the pros did.
"People have said, `Shouldn't USA Hockey, as the national governing body for the sport, have been out in front with this initiative?' " he says. "But I think it's playing out perfectly, because it'll be able to be implemented at the youth levels much better this way. Young kids have seen the positive results in the NHL, and youth sports officials have seen the penalties called there. So while there have been growing pains in rolling this out this year, there will be far fewer growing pains because people have seen the changes work at the highest level."
Certainly, there are many obstacles that could check further growth of ice hockey. While a number of communities report significant growth in participation (especially those, such as Greeley and Coral Springs, that have NHL franchises in their backyards) and certain segments such as women's participation continue to grow, national figures for youth participation are undergoing what Ogrean calls "a modest and hopefully temporary erosion." Part of that 1 to 2 percent drop might be strictly a matter of demographics as the country pulls back from its baby boom, but it's a concern nonetheless. As for other possible reasons—well, the lockout may not have helped in the area of exposure, but then again, when hockey is on national television the nightly fistfight footage helps reinforce the perception that it's a violent sport. Dangerous, too—even though, as Ogrean notes, the most common source of ice-rink injuries is slip/fall accidents that occur off the ice sheet.
Countering these perceptions has become somewhat of an obsession for USA Hockey's board of directors. On the first day of last January's winter meetings, after a showing of the "USA Hockey - Get Out & Play" video, the discussion moved right into finding ways to promote positive traits ("nontraditional, fun, speed, excitement, camaraderie") while minimizing the negatives (as a bullet point from the morning's agenda delicately put it, "change image that it's dangerous/violent/lose your teeth, etc.").
Another obstacle to participation, cost, is also on various hockey organizations' radar, with the International Hockey Industry Association's 2006 initiative, "OneGoal," aiming to help ease the financial burden of hockey newcomers ages 8 and younger. Hockey equipment manufacturers, the NHL, the NHL Players Association, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are all pooling ideas for OneGoal, which will soon include a low-cost equipment starter kit for beginners. The reason this hasn't hit the marketplace yet? "We have to find a delicate balance, since the success of the sport is also dependent on the business survival of equipment companies and hockey facilities," Ogrean says. "We're not solely lobbyists for driving down the cost of the game for the user."
USA Hockey's demographic study of its 600,000 hockey and figure skating members shows them as being "pretty upscale," in Ogrean's words, which is probably why the rise in the cost of ice time isn't cutting into participation. "In most markets, if you have a kid playing ice hockey and somebody tells you the cost of the program next year is going from $2,500 to $3,000, you're probably not pulling your kid out of the program," says Ogrean. "You're paying the extra money."
"You have to be pretty well-off to play hockey, especially travel hockey," Belanger adds. "If the rinks raise the price of ice, people will still pay. They want to play. Hockey's kind of weird; it's almost like you're part of a special cult or something."
Helping hold the line a bit are the nation's public rinks, which in most cases are allowed to operate at a deficit because they're providing a service to the community. Larson says a figure that was batted around at this summer's North American RINK Conference & Expo was "5"—the supposed percentage of public rinks in the U.S. that make money. "Ours is one of them," he says quickly, adding, "We're in a really good position. Operating private rinks, especially with the cost of utilities, has really gotten to be a challenge."
Perhaps the reason that rinks haven't become a health club-style, "unfair competition" battleground is because the hockey community recognizes that public rinks are providing it with a vital service—reaching out to players who otherwise couldn't afford to participate. That's without a doubt the case in southeast Baltimore, where the Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro Family Ice Skating Rink is home to an inner-city hockey program that attracts mostly youths who previously had never laced up skates. Bob Wall, division chief for youth and adult sports in the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks, says matter-of-factly that while "everybody else is at least $235 or above," the seasonal rink offers ice time for just $165 an hour; "We try to draw a line between service and profit," he adds. The rec department subsidizes part of the inner-city program's ice time, while Baltimore Youth Hockey provides coaching and hand-me-down equipment, and helps with fund-raising.
Helping make ends meet at the DiPietro rink this year will be the Johns Hopkins University club team, which will hold its practices and games there. Wall has also worked with a nearby charter school, which made its four weeks of rink time part of its physical education curriculum, and has overseen the writing of a grant that will fund the implementation of a broomball program. "Broomball is targeting kids who can't skate, but we want to at least get them in here and on the ice, see how they like it, and maybe they can come back," Wall says. "The inner-city program has grown in each of its eight years, and the charter school program has been a real plus, because we've seen a lot of those kids come back for lessons and public sessions. Revenue-wise, this has been the best year we've had in the 11 years I've been here."
A major concern as the winter season begins is that even if this year's revenues outpace last year's, persistently high utility costs will eat into an industry that already operates fairly close to the margins. "There is a certain degree to which we're held hostage by the cost of energy," concedes Ogrean.
USA Hockey anticipated a continuing struggle even as rink construction boomed in the mid-1990s, particularly in growing, southern-tier cities that had managed to attract Canadian NHL franchises. For much of the past decade, Florida and Texas were the top states for new construction, with NHL teams there and in Denver, Philadelphia, Phoenix and other markets creating NHL-branded chains (Dr Pepper StarCenters, Flyers SkateZones) that provided practice and competitive space for an exploding number of amateur teams. As an example, when the Minnesota North Stars relocated to Dallas before the 1993-94 season, there were only about 250 youth hockey players in Dallas-Ft. Worth. Ten years later, there were 5,300 playing organized hockey at 24 rinks.
Since that time, however, construction has slowed to a trickle in most markets, even as the demand for ice time continues to grow, says USA Hockey's Pat Kelleher. "People are trying to do rink projects, but they're certainly fewer and farther between than they used to be," he says.
Kelleher serves as chief operating officer for STAR (Serving the American Rinks), a joint venture of USA Hockey and U.S. Figure Skating that since its inception in 2000 has provided its 700 facility owner and vendor members with education, training and resources that might help them survive, and thrive, in a tighter marketplace. A primary focus is on the need for better marketing, to help fill the many hours that rinks too often underutilize.
Belanger, as a hockey club president, feels that teams tend to do a better job of marketing themselves than do rink operators. The Florida Beaches Women's Hockey Club ran a golf tournament this summer, raising $6,000 to help defray travel expenses, and Belanger's not shy about asking local and national companies for sponsorships. "I work at a Toyota distributor; I asked them if they'd like to sponsor us, and they said, `Sure,' " she says with a laugh. "Really, all they needed was to be asked. I mean, there's money out there. I think a lot of rinks aren't very creative in the way they look for sources."
STAR is working to change that, Kelleher says.
"Facility owners certainly have to be more active to make sure people are getting to the rinks," he says. "We're seeing a lot more rinks creating programs that cater to beginning adult players, so they can stretch their ice utilization as late into the evening as possible. Any rink manager in the country can pretty easily sell between 5 and 10 p.m., Monday through Friday, September through March. That's pretty much a given. It's all those other hours that people have to be creative about—they have to create programs that can get people hooked on hockey, so they're willing to come out and play a game at 10:30 or 11 at night."
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