Outside the Vegas Golden Knights’ practice facility, youngsters batted a ball into two nets with hockey sticks while music played. Pizza was close.
A week later, young fans played in an inflatable rink under palm trees before Stanley Cup Final games outside the Florida Panthers’ venue.
The Vegas-Florida final showed the benefits of ball and roller hockey in many U.S. communities without professional teams where ice is scarce. This year, the NHL started a street hockey initiative to lower barriers to the sport and increase casual interest.
“The influence of our teams going to the South, and you see the players getting drafted out of California, Texas, and Florida, and you’re seeing that influence already,” said NHL Street program director Andrew Ference, a former player.
“It’s a nice success story that some NHLers come from such communities, but picture how many youngsters are left out. So many kids and families can’t overcome those hurdles in those cities.”
Street hockey is the latest attempt by stakeholders to break down such boundaries.
Ference, who played over 1,000 NHL games as a defender from 1999-2015 and won the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, was blessed to enjoy outdoor ice half the year in Edmonton. He believes many future players spent more time playing street hockey in driveways and cul-de-sacs as kids.
“All I did when I was a kid was play ball hockey: literally get home from school, go outside, play with my friends,” retired goaltender Andrew Raycroft told Ference at an NHL Street event in Boston this past weekend. It’s the easiest method to play. The city’s skates, sticks, and ice time are expensive. You may love and play the game.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman stated, “The more kids are playing hockey in any form, the better it is for the growth of the game.” His eldest grandchild, Matthew, is a New Jersey high school state champion with a net in his family’s driveway. His 5-year-old grandson takes skating lessons.
Some ice is tougher to skate on.
Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Arizona, and Oklahoma have just 41 indoor and outdoor rinks, many of which are too large for young hockey, according to Arena Guide, a North American rink database. USA Hockey’s last annual report recorded just over 6,000 players in the six states, fewer than in North Carolina alone due to Hurricanes growth since 1997.
Bettman noted that Dallas, Las Vegas, and Tampa are building more ice rinks, which bodes well for the future.
Ference said he and his colleagues aren’t reinventing street hockey, simply adding structure to the traditional custom of knocking on doors to check if enough neighborhood youngsters are available for a pickup game. This isn’t about replicating a sport that emphasizes teamwork, intricacy, and discipline from a young age.
“We don’t have to try to just kind of take ice hockey and put it on the street — basically take the skates off and take the exact same culture and put it on the street,” said Ference, the NHL’s director of social impact, growth, and fan development. Instead, let the kids decide how they want the program to look and feel: What breakaway maneuvers do they want to do? What music do they want?”