From The Mountains to The Prairies: The Growth and Potential of the USA Hockey Districts

This post was painstakingly researched and written by guest contributer @Beckalin, whose USA Hockey obsession love is unparalleled even here at High Heels & High Sticks.

Last month, TSN’s Frank Seravalli posted an article about how, for the first time ever, Canadians do not make up the majority of the players in the NHL this season. Thanks mostly to an influx of Russians and Swedes, the percentage of Canadians has dropped to an all-time low of 49.7 percent.

This is still more than double than that of the next-highest nation: our good ol’ US of A, which comes in at a cool 24.2 percent of the NHL. This number is down from 24.8 percent the past two seasons, which is not terribly notable, as the six-tenths percent drop is equal to approximately four dudes.

The more interesting thing the article mentions regarding USA Hockey is the nationwide high enrollment: a record 611,296 youth and adult players participated last season.

Hockey in the United States has been taking great strides, and not necessarily in the places people might expect. “Non-traditional markets” have been something of a hot-button topic over the past few years: from the Coyotes’ financial woes to the Panthers’ purported attendance issues, there are always old-school die-hards ready and waiting to shout from their DIY ODRs that those people — you know, the ones who live south of the Mason-Dixon line and panic at a snowflake — they don’t deserve hockey.

It’s idiotic, obviously, but I’m not writing to argue that point. The fact of the matter is that in order for ice hockey to grow and thrive on a national level, those non-traditional markets are ones that must be tapped into. The success of the sport should not be hung on how many kids make it to the NHL, but on how pervasive and popular it is in the everyday culture of a country or region.

Canada is both the poster child and the cautionary tale. There is no other country in which hockey is woven with such omnipresence through the entire national culture, but it is perhaps the pressure of that culture that has caused a dip in Canadian youth hockey participation in recent years.

However, one could also argue that the lack of growth is caused in part by the utter lack of room for expansion. Geographically, it is nigh impossible to find an untapped Canadian market. Hockey is already everywhere. Sorry, Canada — I guess you’re gonna have to work on reaching out to your women and minorities if you really want to grow the game.*

(*Yes, I’m aware this is not a solely Canadian problem. Among other countries, America sucks at it too. But I digress.)

What I wanted to look at, in this impressive upswing of American hockey participation, was: where exactly in these great United States is the growth occurring?

I’ve compiled a series of graphs involving registration numbers for girls’ and boys’ youth hockey, separated by the districts defined by USA Hockey. For boys, this is players aged 20 & under; for girls, 19 & under. The registration numbers were taken from USA Hockey’s Annual Report. The population numbers, further down, were taken from the US Census Bureau. The figures involving ice rinks were compiled using a lot of googling.

The graphs here show numbers by district over the past five seasons (or the past six, in the initial set of graphs). Numbers by state and age are available via USA Hockey for anyone interested, and Chris Peters did a whole bunch of fantastic posts on the subject back on the United States of Hockey Blog (RIP, USoH). I chose to go with youth hockey numbers over adult numbers because I feel like youth numbers are a better reflection of overall community involvement. It takes a village to raise a hockey player, after all.

Starting with the basics: your straight-up registration numbers.

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While the scales on these charts are different, the trend is very much the same: some dips in the middle, but it’s an overall upwards slope in almost every district. Each gender has a single outlier where there were fewer players registered last year in 2014-15 than there were for the 2009-10 season: Michigan for the boys (down to 50,602 from 51,404), and New England for the girls (6,611 from 6,680).

Minnesota is predictably at or near the top of both of these charts, although it’s beaten on the boys’ side by the Central District of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

The Northern Plains (Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas) District seems to rank embarrassingly low for the guys, but withhold your judgement, please.

This next set of graphs shows the cumulative percentage growth in registration for each district over the past five years.

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The two outliers mentioned above come in last on these graphs as the only two districts to record negative growth, although neither number is drastic: -1.56 percent for boys in Michigan and -1.03 percent for girls in New England.

Far more interesting is where other low registration districts show up on these charts: the Northern Plains and Southeastern Districts, both near the bottom on the first set of graphs, have actually experienced the some of the most growth over the past five years. For boys, the Pacific District tops the chart with a 28 percent jump — due in no small part, I’m sure, to the recent success of certain California hockey teams.

The Northern Plains have posted 26.3 percent and 36.6 percent growth by 2014-15 for boys and girls respectively.

The Southeastern District, which encompasses that entire corner of the US from Maryland to Florida and all the way out to Louisiana, has the boys with a respectable 25.7 percent and the girls at an impressive 32.6 percent.

(The Southeastern District is an interesting case in and of itself because of the territory it covers: the highest numbers in the district come from Florida, which boasts just over 12,000 boys registered to play this season; the DC-MD-VA area combines for almost 21K. But then there’s Mississippi’s 174 players enrolled in boys’ youth hockey, the lowest in the nation besides Hawaii’s 15. A state-by-state breakdown would be necessary for the full story, here.)

Look at the more traditional markets, though. The same four districts rank last in percentage growth for both boys and girls: New England (5.09% for boys; -1.03% for girls), New York (4.72%; 1.42%), Michigan (-1.56%; 8.24%), and Minnesota (3.74%; 4.56%).

This doesn’t mean that playing hockey is less popular in these districts — far from it. The raw registration numbers prove otherwise. Minnesota, specifically, is hands-down the state where playing hockey is the most mainstream. This more likely means is that the markets in these districts are already saturated: kids who have the means and desire to play hockey are already doing it, and the number of new kids joining the hockey ranks is not significantly outnumbering the number of kids who age out of youth hockey or leave the sport on a yearly basis.

When you’re in an area where hockey is already as pervasive as it is in Minnesota or New England it’s just not necessary to reach out to the untapped sections of your population to ensure the success of your hockey community.

An exception on this graph is Massachusetts, which posts impressive registration numbers and percentage growth for both genders: 14.15 percent for boys and 20.58 percent for girls. Massachusetts, like Minnesota, is kind of its own beast when it comes to hockey culture, and I’d love to hear some local insights regarding the outreach and accessibility of youth hockey there.

These next graphs show the percentage growth by district year-by-year, created as a way to see which years were good for growth and which ones weren’t.

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It’s interesting how registration seems to peak around Olympic years, right? Especially for girls’ hockey. It’s almost like actually seeing women playing hockey is important for getting girls into playing hockey. Or like watching Olympic hockey is the most exposure a lot of kids in nontraditional markets get to the sport at all. “If you build it, they will come,” except in this case “building it” is both letting them know it exists and that it’s something they can do.

This is a small sample size, so I can’t claim conclusively that the Olympics are the number one reason for these trends, but it certainly seems reasonable to assume there is an impact there. It’ll be interesting to see if/how the girls’ numbers are affected after the NWHL has been around for a few years.

Michigan’s just got issues all over the place, though. What’s wrong, Michigan? (Seriously, does anyone know what’s going on in Michigan?)

The next two graphs are my attempt at measuring that actual popularity of hockey in each district. I’ve taken the number of boys or girls registered with USA Hockey and compared it to the actual population of age-eligible humans in that district: boys ages 6-20 and girls ages 6-19.

There are some issues with this, including able-bodiedness (each person’s actual physical ability to participate) and financial or geographic access to hockey, an expensive sport than can only be played with access to a rink of some sort. Kids under six can participate in hockey, but the USA Hockey age bracket is “6 & Under”, and I figured the number of children younger than six would be negligible in the overall numbers.

Pennsylvania, always the bane of my existence, is the only state split between two districts (Atlantic – Eastern PA; Mid-American – Western PA). For the purposes of these graphs, the population has been split using the very scientific method of eyeballing a few population density maps then dividing the total population 70/30 — 70% East and 30% West.

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These numbers make it clear why I’m confident saying that hockey is more popular in Minnesota than it is anywhere else in the States. Although the Central District has more overall registered players, a notably higher percentage of kids play hockey in Minnesota than anywhere else. In the 2014-15 season, 11.28 percent of boys and 2.33 percent of girls participated.

It’s worth noting that the districts with the highest percentages here (Minny, Mass, New England, and the Northern Plains) are also the districts with the smallest total eligible populations and, excluding the Northern Plains, cover the smallest geographic areas. Having an insular, concentrated population of fans is ideal for maintaining a fanbase. I don’t know about y’all, but thinking “Minnesota hockey” or “Massachusetts hockey” or “New England hockey” draws up separate, specific ideas and images for me, which just goes to show how good these areas have been at developing their individual communities.

Also worth looking at is New York, which hosts two of the NHL’s most dedicated fanbases in the Rangers and the Sabres, but for the 2014-15 season had just 2.93 percent of boys and 0.29 percent of girls registered to play. These numbers are respectable in comparison to other districts, but not impressive, which is where the issue of accessibility comes into account even for “traditional markets.”

The bulk of New York’s population is in the NYC Metropolitan area, where ice time is much more expensive and harder to come by than it is in upstate or western New York. The sheer number of people in New York City — 42.5 percent of the state’s total population — skews the participation percentage for the district.

This is also true for districts like the Southeastern, where areas like Florida or the DMV would look more successful alone than grouped in with the rest of the district. Illinois and Wisconsin in the Central District suffer similar fates.

It’ll be interesting to see if the opening of the massive Kingsbridge National Ice Center in the Bronx has a significant impact on the New York’s overall numbers. When it’s completed in 2017, it’ll be the largest ice center in the world, and an exceptional resource in an area where accessibility is a major issue for youth hockey players.

My last graph is an attempt to illustrate the relationship between accessibility and popularity in each district. This graph takes the combined age-eligible population of girls and boys and compares it with the approximate number of ice rinks in each district:

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(I feel like the abbreviations are pretty self-explanatory — the two clustered dots toward the right are the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Districts, since they’re pretty hard to read.)

Things this chart does not take into account: accessibility issues including the cost of ice time, the amount of time each rink is open to the public, whether the rink is seasonal or not, and geographic distribution of rinks. It also does not account for whether the rinks offer skating and/or hockey instruction for either or both genders.

Things this chart tries its darnedest to take into account: the actual existence of these rinks. It’s sometimes really difficult to discern via the internet whether an ice rink is open to the public at all, but even if the numbers aren’t exact, they’re pretty close.

That being said, the idea here is that higher the rink-to-person ratio is, the more accessible the sport is in that district. Obviously this is not an exact science, as there are many factors that contribute to the accessibility of hockey, for both players and non-player fans. However, I wanted a measurable metric to help show exactly how cool it is when the popularity and participation of hockey goes up in non-traditional markets, illustrating how much more effort it takes to grow the game in those districts.

Look at the Minnesota dot on the graph up there. According to my research, approximately every single inch of open space in Minnesota becomes an outdoor rink as soon as the weather allows for it, which since it’s Minnesota is probably in, like, July. At peak ODR season, not including any private rinks, there is one rink for about every 2,100 people in the state. That is a lot of ice.

On the other end of the graph is the poor Southeastern, which has one rink for about every 164,000 people in the district, and most of those rinks are located in Florida or the DC area. Massachusetts has one rink per ~9,000 people, but the Pacific District has one per ~97,500.

This isn’t a simple cause-and-effect situation, because the route to growing the game is not just to build more rinks in the south, but it does give some perspective. Hockey isn’t unpopular in nontraditional markets because people can’t or won’t like it. It’s because there is far less exposure and accessibility in those districts, and where it is available it’s often egregiously expensive.

The trick is that in markets like that, you can’t grow the game just by throwing hockey at them and hoping it will stick. They’re not Winnipeg, a city with a rich hockey history, where you give them their team back and they immediately fill up the arena. Creating a sustainable hockey culture in a nontraditional market means integrating it into the culture that already exists.

The ECHL’s Road Warriors in Greenville, SC, re-branding as the locally-inspired Swamp Rabbits this season is a pitch-perfect example of this. The new, unique mascot has drawn attention to the franchise from major media outlets in the States and Canada as well as providing a boost in merchandise sales. According to the team’s email newsletter from September 24, by a month after the name change they had orders placed from 28 states, three provinces, and the UK.It’s too early to tell if there will be a season-long boost, but the attendance at their home opener this weekend (6,121) was almost double that of their average attendance last season (3,619).

Nashville is another great example of this on a much larger scale. The Predators averaged almost 17,000 people per game last season — 98.5 percent of Bridgestone Arena’s capacity. That’s fuller than thirteen other NHL teams’ arenas, including the Ottawa Senators.

The rising registration numbers show that there is potential. I don’t ever expect hockey in the nontraditional markets to ever be the same as hockey in traditional ones, and I don’t want it to be. The way people in the south do hockey, particularly, is a really cool and special thing to me, and the idea of “hockey is for everyone” in and of itself means that people should be able to do hockey their own way. But I do think that growing the game throughout all districts is important not only for USA Hockey, but for professional hockey in North America as an industry, and the districts dismissed by many as “nontraditional” have the most potential for growth.

After all, if we didn’t tap into nontraditional markets, would we even have Seth Jones and Auston Matthews? Would our women’s teams have the world-class talents of Annie Pankowski, Haley Skarupa, and Jincy Dunne? Is that a world we even want to think about? Let’s not. Instead, let’s just keep growing the game, and celebrating that growth, wherever it may happen.

Becky: Virginia born-and-bred. Will fight you about Washington DC. Used to play a lot of sports, now mostly just yells about them. Terrible taste in music.

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3 comments

  1. Oh, this is WONDERFUL, thanks for going to all the trouble of analyzing these data and creating such wonderful visualizations and explanations. I knew sort of vaguely that finding a hockey rink in Chicago was a lot easier than in Kansas City, but this really brought it home.

    Like

  2. Great post. The Michigan declines seem condensed in the 2011-2014 period. Perhaps its economics – this was the teeth of Detroit/Flint’s bankruptcy period. Coupled with significantly weaker state finances. It may change things on the margin.

    Like

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