Last month a New York Times article discussed the changing landscape of hockey in America and it really got me thinking about how I became a diehard puck fan. My first taste of hockey was experienced on the frozen ponds and backyard rinks in the suburbs of Chicago. Though I enjoyed the freedom of the open ice of a pond, my love for the game wasn’t cemented at that point in my life. After a couple more winters and few more spins on the outdoor ice, my parents decided to move the family down to sunny South Florida. My guess is that they got tired of dealing with blizzard after blizzard for 30+ years like so many others before them. Good thing I made friends with other transplants whose parents chose to ditch the brutal winters for year round heat and dreadful humidity. Not what you would call prime breeding ground for hockey at that time.
This was around 1992 and just before the Florida Panthers inaugural season, so when we hit the street for the first time with hockey sticks, pucks and a cardboard box as a net, the neighbors looked at us as if we were wearing moon boots and carrying bazookas. We were definitely outcasts in the early 90’s Florida sports scene. Our games began as three kids slapping pucks all over the street and maybe hitting some cars in the process. Ice rinks weren’t that plentiful in Florida at that time, and the ice time cost a helluva lot more than the free frozen pond did in Illinois. Street hockey was all we had and as the Panthers arrived and began to grow a fan base, so did our troop of street hockey bandits. We became semi-sophisticated and began building our own regulation size nets from PVC pipe, organized neighborhood tournaments in cul-de-sacs and one Canadian friend even made home “ice” on his street by painting a Maple Leaf in the middle. Every day after school we would race home to grab our gear (rollerblades, gloves & stick) and hop on our bikes to head over to the cul-de-sac appropriately named “Maple Leaf Gardens” to play game after game in 90 degree weather until the sun faded enough to make it to dark to play. This is where the deep roots of my love for the game were planted, on the hot pavement of South Florida playing hockey on rubberized wheels. However, we weren’t the only one’s playing anymore. Roller hockey leagues began to spring up in every city/town and the demand for ice hockey began to grow.
In 1995-96, the Panthers made their run to the Stanley Cup Finals and right around this time, new ice rinks began to sprout up all over the South Florida landscape. A little success seemed to go a long way. The game definitely seemed to be growing there, in terms of new players, and legions of roller hockey trained kids were making their move to the ice leagues. I was one of them. However, I was returning back to the ice that I was once familiar with back on those frozen outdoor rinks in Illinois. A number of the born and bred southerners were experiencing the feel of the puck on the ice for the first time, but after the initial learning curve, the skills honed on the street took over for a lot of them. Many of the players I met and played with down there went on to play at various competitive levels and the majority remain recreational players and fans to this day. I personally have been playing for 20 years now and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. My life has taken me from a “traditional” hockey market to a “non-traditional” market and now to another non-traditional market here in Atlanta. I feel the NHL takes some unfair criticisms at times for their initiative to bring the sport to the Sun Belt states. It is true that a good number of people don’t follow hockey at all down here. However, speaking from personal experience, movement to these non-traditional areas has fostered a large number of new fans of the game and more importantly new players. Evidence of this can be seen in recent NHL Drafts, where teenagers from areas like California and Nevada have been selected. Fan development and successful transition from a “niche” sport to a “rich” sport takes time. In addition, for the NHL and the growth of the game to be successful, it’s going to take a lot more than the dominated buy in of one country (hi, Canada) for this to happen.
Here’s to the game and its evolving landscape. Cheers!
Link to NY Times Article, great read: “For Hockey, a Landscape That Now Includes Palm Trees”