How to Ensure Hockey Continues to Grow in the South

     The Ice Bears finished up our annual summer Youth Hockey Camp last month out at Cool Sports Home of the Icearium in Farragut and along with a 3 day headache, some great stories and a pile of new rinkrat buddies, I came away with some pretty clear and decisive reflections about youth hockey. More specifically, I came away with some clear and decisive thoughts about youth hockey down in this area of the South. There is no doubt that the sport has grown quickly in popularity and with some strength since the Nashville Predators established ‘Smashville’ back in 1998 behind the strength of other southern NHL franchises like San Jose in 91’, Tampa Bay in 92’ and Florida/Carolina/Anaheim between 93’ and 98’. The Preds’ arrival along with the Atlanta Thrashers the year after was a sign that the sport was outgrowing its traditional markets and their traditional, born & bred fanbase (even if the Atlanta franchise was short-lived).

                                             Some of our intense, hard working Youth campers from this summer.

     I moved to Knoxville in the summer of 2004 when the Predators were still somewhat scuffling along on & off the ice and as a Canadian born & raised kid, it was certainly a culture shock for me to see the lack of interest and participation at the grass roots level in this area. The numbers were so sparse that despite several emails, calls and attempts to get some statistics that the best I could come up with was that in 2004 there were less than 500 kids under the age of 12 playing hockey in the entire state of Tennessee. That number has grown by leaps and bounds since then through great, focused youth hockey programs and people committed to the growth of the sport and Tennessee now boasts over one thousand (1,058 according to the USA hockey website) youth participants in the same category.

     The problem with growth however, and the problem with success in any walk of life, is the realization that you can do better. There will always be the hunger and yearning for better and its human nature to strive for more, so it should be no surprise that youth hockey and hockey in general follow that same blueprint. The grass roots development programs in the Southeast USA hockey region and the introduction of our great sport into the lives of more families has worked so well and grown so fast that I truly worry about it flaming out sooner rather than later. I love hockey and it has been my lifeblood as long as I can remember, but to ensure the growth we’re experiencing in the sport down here in Knoxville and to maintain some stability, we gotta play more baseball.

     Yeah, you read that correctly and it wasn’t a typo and I’m not blogging from my Smartphone leading to a misplaced autocorrected word. If we want young kids to continue playing hockey well into their adolescent years, we absolutely have to play more baseball. Or soccer. Or karate. Or golf. Or lacrosse. Just something else.            
                                                    KIB stickboy Del Howes and his Tornados teammates were champs this year too.

     There are so many great sports in the wide world of athletics and there are so many different lessons, skillsets and abilities to learn from all those sports when you’re a kid that limiting to or overloading on just one is a clear and obvious mistake. I know, “your kid loves hockey, he begs you to be at the rink every day, he just loves it” and “it’s not me telling him to play, he wants to be there, all his friends are there playing.” I get that, and I know your child loves hockey. What’s not to love? But let’s be honest here….. your nine year old would love looking for a bucket of steam or finding a glass hammer if there were other kids doing it too. If you take him or her to the ball field or soccer field, they will find friends there too. Kids are awesome, they don’t care about what church their buddy goes to or whether they have a confederate flag in their backyard, that drama and selective integrity is grown up stuff that they can enjoy when you allow them to get a Facebook page J. They will rally and come together around the fun and entertainment that sports provide, so let them.

     Hockey requires a very specific group of muscles and a very refined skillset including hand eye coordination, balance, etc that other sports don’t do as much of. But baseball, soccer and the plethora of other sports provide other muscle group development and skillset growth that hockey doesn’t. These are young, growing and progressing bodies that should be playing all sorts of sports and games to help balance their growth and skills through each and every sport they learn to love and improve at.

      Muscles and skillsets, that’s one argument…. Sure. But that doesn’t even cover the wide realm of categorizing the fun and lessons involved in different sports. I will precursor this with the I love hockey statement yet again, but not every kid who plays hockey gets the same experience. Not every child who plays hockey gets to score a goal and not every child who is on the ice is experiencing the same thing as the other. There is one puck in a game, you either have it or you don’t and those who don’t are not having as much fun out there as the ones that do. The exercise and strategic positioning of soccer, the dugout comradery and the disappointment of a strikeout at the ball yard, the confidence of martial arts, they are all great in their own way and a different kind of enjoyment for the kids that play them. I’m a huge advocate of not only well-rounded, complete athletes but well-rounded, complete individuals and the more and more great athletes I meet and talk to the common denominator is the same; “I played everything when I was a kid.”

     Take this all with a grain of salt if you must, I completely understand that a piece about raising a child from a guy who doesn’t have any children might not be the most resounding of messages. But I do feel like I’ve had a very good vantage point from the outside looking in on this issue for the past 10 years as I’ve watched families and children growing up playing hockey. If you’re living at the rink year round and your 9 year old is going to play in the NHL because of it, all the power to you, I hope they do (they probably won’t by the way - less than 1 percent of youth hockey players will make the NHL. The chances of your kid seeing Bigfoot wearing a Volunteers jersey walking down Cumberland are likely higher than seeing them play for an NHL team). But I’ve noticed that the excitement and the anticipation of lacing up skates and getting out onto the ice seems to be declining slowly. Kids are slogging through ice sessions, checking the big digital clock in the endzone for when their hour is up and wondering what they’re doing that night. Why? I think it’s because kids who play too much of one sport or the other – hockey in this case – don’t ever get the chance to miss it. And if you don’t miss something, you might forget about why you love it. Even further to that, if you don’t develop a love or at least a level of enjoyment for other sports, how are you going to know if hockey is still your favorite?

     Don’t get me wrong, please. Hockey is the greatest sport in the world in my eyes and I have never experienced more exhilaration and fun than those moments I have spent on the ice playing it. But take a break sometimes, play other sports and see where it takes you and your family.
     Time for some Ice Bear chatter before I wrap things up and get ready to head over to Nashville to watch my buddy Scott "Hot Sauce" Holtzman jump into the ring for his first UFC fight. Quick side note, Scotty played lots of sports growing up..... didn't specialize in anything specific, just a fun fact.

                                   Scott Holtzman helping the Ice Bears celebrate their 4th championship back in April

     It seems like just yesterday we were parading the Cup around the ice downtown in front of that memorable playoff crowd, but in reality, it wasn't yesterday. We're already a week into August and "next season" is now being called "the season." It's getting close. 

     Just like any year at the single A level, our roster is going to undergo some significant overturn due to players moving on, moving up, finding other opportunities and many other reasons. Just this week I learned that along with Eric Satim not returning, his linemate Franky Drolet has signed a contract to play in France this coming year and won't be available to start the season either. Both Jake Johnson and Matthew Paton have also committed to playing in Germany and England respectively along with Brett Valliquette leaving the game, Ryan Salvis & Mark Corbett being picked up by Macon, Robbie Donahoe signing in the ECHL and perhaps beyond, Sy Nutkevitch moving on, Ben Power looking into options overseas and just like that our championship roster has been blown full of holes.

     It's not ideal by any means, and a little bit staggering to be honest, to have to replace all of the names mentioned above, but it's also a simple reality in the SPHL that every team goes through almost yearly. Players come and players go, teams change and the Ice Bears will be a very different looking squad this October full of young, hungry players looking to make an impact. It's a testament to some of our quality as well as our players who padded their resume with an SPHL title last year and were able to move on and up to other jobs and opportunities in the hockey world will continue to grow the Ice Bear name across the hockey horizon. It's also a sign that a year of SPHL experience on a player resume is carrying a lot more weight than it did 5 years ago when European leagues didn't really recognize single A hockey in North America. I'm happy for all of these guys who've found alternative jobs in the hockey world and proud to say we had them all together last year in Knoxville.

     We're going to start rolling out some of the names and information on returning players next week along with some of our new rookies and potential Ice Bears so stay tuned for a regular serving of hockey and KIB news soon.

     Enjoy your weekend, don't forget to send good vibes Scotty Holtzman's direction tomorrow and take care.


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