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While youth hockey participation in Canada is declining, the U.S. is seeing steady growth

Hockey wasn’t in the cards for the Gershkovich family living in the Phoenix area until they were approached about a program that provided free equipment and an eight-week try-out program.

“That’s what got us into it,” said Phil Gershkovich, whose sons Eli and Josh both got involved and Josh still plays in high school. “That attracts a lot of people, and that’s a good path.”

The United States has seen steady growth in the sport over the past decade, while Canada has struggled with a significant decline in youth participation over the same period. Efforts by USA Hockey, National Hockey League teams and others to bring in more diverse families — and a boom, especially in girls’ participation — have fueled the increase and opened the door for the U.S. to one day rival its neighbor in the to overtake North as the game’s pre-eminent player. current.

“When I was younger, it was always Canada,” said Logan Cooley, a Pittsburgh native and U.S. National Team Development Program graduate who just completed his first NHL season with Arizona. “There were even kids my age who moved to Canada and all you heard about was hockey in Canada and all the stars they had. But now it’s really cool to see that the US is kind of on their side.”

Two years ago marked the first time that there were more registered youth hockey players in the US than in Canada. The last figure reported by USA Hockey was 387,910 in 2022-2023 – up from just under 340,000 in 2009-2010 and higher than Canada’s 360,031. There are more than 70,000 girls, which according to Kevin Erlenbach, an American hockey player, is more than in Canada, specifically citing a 94% increase at ages 8 and under.

“Whether it’s women’s hockey, if it’s just underserved communities, even our disabled community, if you can see it, it can be you and it has much more impact,” said Erlenbach, deputy director of membership for the organization.

Following the inaugural season of the Professional Women’s Hockey League, further gains could be made in that area, although the U.S. national team’s success at the recent Olympics has also played a role in increased girls participation. Canadian star Brianne Jenner said she believes the PWHL “will change our sport more than anything, and I think it will change our communities as well.”

The communities involved in hockey are already changing, with industry leaders hoping to appeal to people who never saw the sport as a place for them. Sean Grevy’s New York-based 43 Oak Foundation, which provides opportunities for minority and underprivileged children to learn how to advance in the game, now has 150 families involved.

“My main goal, my main focus, my main priority with this program is to make this sport more inclusive so that other people from different backgrounds experience the same level of camaraderie that we experienced as children,” Grevy said.

Sky Silverstein, the program’s first graduate who now works for 43 Oak, is an example of that progress. Silverstein, who is Black, played Division III hockey at Endicott College and UMass-Dartmouth and wants kids who look up to him to know there is a path for them.

“People will tell you, ‘It’s a white sport,’ and that’s not what we want it to be — but that’s the way it is,” Silverstein said. ‘You have to have money, at least a little. …It’s just one of those things. You need to have access to the game.”

Free programs and efforts to learn to play are considered crucial. But a major reason for the growth in the U.S. has to do with changes implemented more than a decade ago at the national level, including a mandate that youth play on one-third of an ice rink, effectively creating room to increase the number of skaters to triple. on the ice at the same time and give them more opportunities to touch the puck, hone their skills and enjoy the experience more.

“It also helped tremendously with employee retention just because it was a completely different experience and more cost-effective,” Erlenbach said.

Cost remains a concern for hockey in North America, not just for equipment, but also for ice time, coaching and more. That’s where organizations like 43 Oak come in, and the success the foundation has had with financial help from UBS and the New York Islanders is being replicated across the country.

“We have to work together to grow together,” Grevy said. “We encourage that. We don’t want to be the only ones doing this. This is not a competition for us. In fact, it changes the space of diverse hockey and creates an ecosystem where we all work together.”

AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

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