Hockey fans have grown accustomed to their heroes hailing from such places as Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Laval, Quebec, or Brantford, Ontario. But future stars of the game could come from the Lone Star State, with more regularity than once thought possible.
If there is a recurring theme running through the events surrounding the 2007 NHL All-Star Game being held in Dallas, it is the phenomenal growth of youth hockey in the area. Prior to the Stars’ arrival in this booming area in 1993, hockey was little more than a curiosity to sports fans more focused on pro, college or even high school football. In
fact, before the NHL arrived in North Texas, there were no high school hockey teams to be found, and just five rinks in this sprawling metro area. Travel teams totaled just eight, with roughly 250 youths in total playing some form of organized hockey.
Thirteen years on, the story is much different. Where there was once no high school hockey to be found, there are now 70 teams competing at this level. Hockey of any sort was rare, particularly the traveling variety, but now there are 120 traveling teams in this region. In fact, one team, the Dallas Ice Jets, won the USA Hockey Tier One 12-and-under tournament last April, the first such national championship for any travel team from Texas. And those 250 youths participating in youth hockey back in 1993 have now grown to over 5000.
While the explosion in hockey in this area could be traced to the Stars Stanley Cup win in 1999, the general feeling is that this growth could not have happened without the club’s involvement in promoting the game.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has certainly taken note of the game’s growth in Dallas, making a point of mentioning this phenomenon during his press conference following the Board of Governors meeting today.
“I think hockey does well when people have a chance to experience particularly the NHL level,” stated a proud Bettman. “But I think it’s a testament to the job that the Stars have done in terms of building rinks and developing hockey programs…Somebody has to be committed to that and I think the Stars have been committed to the grassroots programs and to getting kids involved, and it’s showing up.”
Anaheim prospect David McKee was one such participant. A native of Irving, Texas, McKee attended Stars goalie Andy Moog’s camps as a youngster, and went on to play for the NAHL Texas Tornado in 2002-03, then Cornell University. Signed by the Ducks this summer as a free agent, he backed up for the NHL squad during five games this season.
To be sure, when compared to the strength of the game in Canadian hockey bastions such as Toronto or Montreal, the Dallas area still has a long way to go in producing top-flight hockey talent. But the growth that has been accomplished in this region and the approach that has been taken to get these results is a model that could be used to promote the growth of the game in other American markets that, despite the NHL’s presence, still regard the game as a curiosity.
IIHF agreement progressing
With regard to hockey prospects, specifically European prospects, the most significant bit of information to come out of the Board of Governors meeting today was the news that the IIHF has submitted a new proposal to potentially settle the issue of player transfers.
While no specific details of this proposal were released, perhaps the most significant news is that the Russians have expressed agreement with the terms of this proposal, something that had been lacking during negotiations that have dragged on over the past year.
Both Commissioner Bettman and NHL Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Bill Daly saw the Russian affirmation as a good sign, although there is still work to be done.
“The proposal was submitted this week, so we’re still looking over the details,” stated Daly. “We’re pleased that the Russians are participating in this agreement, and we’re hopeful that this could work out.”
One of the main stumbling blocks according to Daly has been a “structural” issue related to players returning to Europe following their release from NHL clubs. Transfer fees have also been an issue, but there now appears to be the framework of an agreement that could satisfy all parties.
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