|One aspect of hockey's appeal, for some (Montreal Daily Star, Mar 8, 1923)|
The history of the league shows that all you really need is artificial ice technology and a developed consumer market - how else can you really explain the early success of NHL hockey in places like New York City, where there were probably no more than a few dozen amateur hockey teams when the NHL moved to town in 1925? Or Toronto, where artificial ice was a requirement before the NHL's predecessor would make a commitment? Or Los Angeles? These cities show the real reason for the NHL's success (or lack of it), was primarily customers willing to pay for the on-ice product, which was novel, fast, and yes, just a wee bit violent (but, unlike boxing, the violence was in pursuit of a more noble goal (scoring goals) than beating another man senseless).
|Hobey Baker would be proud|
Nonetheless, throughout its history the NHL has recognized the importance of developing the sport outside its own clubs. Initially, this took the form of supporting the creation and development of minor professional and senior amateur leagues (and keeping them at bay, in some cases). The league also directly subsidized the American Hockey Association of the United States (AHA of US, now USA Hockey) as it did the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (now Hockey Canada), but at relatively low financial levels. But while amateur hockey in Canada has continued strong through the decades, providing the core of NHL playing rosters, the United States has never quite lived up to its potential. Part of the problem was the NHL's refusal to entertain the idea that college could be good for professional player development, but that has changed in recent decades.
What prompts me to post on the subject is a recent set of New York Times articles (here, here and here) by Jeff Z. Klein that show that hockey participation is "skyrocketing" and experiencing "explosive growth", especially in non-traditional markets in the American South and West. Klein suggests the proximity to NHL clubs has contributed to this growth, which has made hockey into "a national game" (according to the executive director of USA Hockey, anyway). (For a cool cartographic representation go here.)
This gives credence to the NHL's policy of "growing the game" which, while a longstanding historical wish for the league, has certainly become more intense and committed under Gary Bettman's tenure. And while previous US expansion was geared almost exclusively to obtaining national American TV contracts, the NHL is getting some support for the risks they have taken by putting clubs into markets to develop interest (and create hockey players) and not waiting for those markets to develop a taste for ice on their own. In short, they are actively helping create hockey markets. One day we may even start calling them "traditional".