USA Hockey Reports Increase In Participation

By Paige Townley 
Youth involvement in team sports has declined over the past decade. According to a report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, inactivity among kids hit 20.0 percent in 2014 and further increased to 37.1 percent in 2015. While fewer children have been making the decision to choose a team, a few sports have seen an increase in youth involvement. One of those sports is hockey. In fact, hockey has been seeing an upward trend since 2009. “For us, participation continues to grow,” said Dave Fischer, senior director of communications for USA Hockey, the governing body for organized amateur ice hockey in the United States. “And that’s across the board at all levels, including youth, girls/women, disabled and adult. So, our playing population is expanding.”
According to USA Hockey’s most recent data, 555,175 players took part in the sport during the 2016-17 season, an increase of 2.32 percent from the previous season. Add in the number of non-participants (such as parents, volunteers, team managers, etc.) and participation was more than 1.15 million during the last season, an all-time USA Hockey record. “Another big success in these numbers is that this year we also had our biggest participation ever with females,” Fischer said. “The growth is exciting. Especially because it wasn’t that many decades ago that hockey was really thought of as only a sport played in a handful of states and now you have it in all 50 states.”

There are a number of factors that have gone into the growth of the sport. Hockey continues to get great exposure on national television, Fischer notes, and the National Hockey League (NHL) has continued to expand over the last 25 years. “When the NHL expanded into what we call non-traditional markets, such as the South and California, and now with the expansion into Las Vegas, that gives incredible visibility to the sport,” he said. “And not just NHL but also other professional leagues. When those types of entities come into a community, it inspires people to watch and perhaps even aspire to play hockey.”

Also, top events being held in the United States provides great exposure for the sport. In late December, Buffalo, N.Y., will host the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship, which features the best men’s players in the world under the age of 20. The event concludes January 5, 2018. “It’s one of the most anticipated events on the hockey calendar every year,” Fischer said. The United States is not only the defending gold champion, the U.S. team has won three gold medals in this tournament in the past decade, more than any other nation. The competition will feature the first-ever outdoor game played as part of the event.

Also, giving great visibility to the sport are the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games, both of which are coming up in 2018. “We’re excited about the Games and all that comes with it because it’s an opportunity to showcase our sport,” Fischer said. “Nothing shines the light so bright on hockey. There’s just nothing close to the Olympics or the Paralympics. We’re excited about taking advantage of that.”

In the meantime, USA Hockey is pursuing all avenues to grow the sport on many other levels. Over the past few years, the organization has focused heavily on the 8-and-under age category to grow participation. “We want that entry-level age to increase, so we want to make sure kids in that 8-and-under group have a chance to at least try the sport,” Fischer said. “We typically find that when they try hockey, they like it and want to continue.”

To appeal to younger prospective players, USA Hockey started the “Try Hockey For Free” program. Every year, USA Hockey organizes two days during which it provides the infrastructure for its local programs—approximately 2,500 associations nationwide—across the country to let kids come in and try out the sport.

Another initiative, “Learn To Play,” is a new endeavor in cooperation with the NHL. Learn To Play provides kids ages 5 to 8 with an opportunity to learn how to play hockey under the guidance of a certified coach with free head-to-toe equipment. The program helps kids build hockey skills and thus builds their confidence in the sport. “It’s another way that we’re getting kids starting the sport at an early age and this is a great way to help them learn how to skate and do some of the basics,” Fischer said. “It’s another great program helping us try to move the needle little by little towards more participation.”

So far, programs such as these targeting the 8-and-under age group are succeeding. For the 2016-17 season, USA Hockey saw an increase in participation in the age group, hitting a new record this year. But the organization is also growing other areas successfully as well. USA Hockey recently added blind hockey to its disabled hockey disciplines, as well as warrior hockey for veterans, growing overall from four disciplines to six. “We firmly believe hockey is for everyone,” Fischer said. “We want to continue providing opportunities for all as we are able.”

USA Hockey also wants to keep all participants safe while playing, so the organization has continued improving its safety program. The group has always maintained a comprehensive safety program but it has made many enhancements over the last few years, especially related to reporting alleged misconduct and digital communications. “Our top priority is safety,” Fischer said. “We want to provide a fun environment that is also safe so kids can meet their full potential.”

Part of hockey helping kids reach their full potential is the many off-the-ice qualities they learn while participating in the team sport, Fischer said, from discipline and drive to teamwork and camaraderie. “I don’t think there is any questions that hockey teaches a number of critical skills needed in life and teamwork probably tops that list,” he said. “Hockey is unique among sports in that it builds a unique camaraderie in that while it’s a physical sport, it teaches a lot about respect and caring for one another. There is so much kids can learn about life through hockey.”