There are many ways to measure the popularity of hockey in the United States. The way most professional sports fans would measure that sort of thing is in the television ratings and attendance numbers for local pro teams. That is definitely a good way to look at it, but another indicator is how many people are taking up the sport and actually playing it.
When you put all of those numbers together, things look pretty good for the NHL and the game overall when it comes to growth.
USA Hockey, the national governing body for the sport, recently released its participation numbers for the 2013-14 season. According to the organization, a record 519,417 amateur players were registered across the country last season, eclipsing the previous high-water mark of 511,178 set in 2011-12.
Those numbers include youth and adult players. When adding in coaches and officials, USA Hockey’s membership approaches 600,000. The organization also estimates that there are more than 1 million Americans involved in amateur hockey in some capacity whether as a parent, team manager or volunteer.
USA Hockey’s numbers do not include every single hockey player in the country as there are some leagues that don’t require players to be registered with the organization, but it’s pretty close.
So this is good news for the sport in the United States, particularly only being one year removed from an NHL lockout and a U.S. economy still in recovery. The 2004-05 lockout was followed by two years of participation decline, which along with the recession, took several years to recover from.
Up until last season, which was marred by the lockout, USA Hockey had been enjoying four consecutive years of growth. The boost this year more than makes up for the minimal participation decline of the 2012-13 season.
It’s no mistake that the hockey participation numbers are going up as the NHL makes gains in popularity nationwide.
This also was an Olympic year, which is when USA Hockey’s membership typically spikes nationally. It could swell even more next season, particularly in the rather large Stanley Cup markets of Los Angeles and New York as the Kings and Rangers square off in the final.
If you want to see what the power of the Stanley Cup looks like, you’ll have to look no further than the state of Illinois, home of the Chicago Blackhawks.
In 2008-09, the full season before Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010, there were 21,954 players statewide. Two Stanley Cups later, there were nearly 30,000 hockey players registered in Illinois, a boost of 36.5 percent in five seasons, which is insane for a state of that population compared to national averages.
With 519,000-plus players, nearly 352,000 of which are under the age of 18, the game of hockey is as healthy as it’s ever been in the United States. Surging ticket sales and television ratings in a number of American NHL markets also suggests a rapidly growing game and fan base.
Cost of playing the game has likely suppressed hockey from reaching its full potential, but even in the face of the daunting finances, the game continues to grow. It’s a testament to the NHL’s growth across the United States and the efforts of those at the grassroots level of hockey that have allowed it to achieve such heights over the last 20 years.
Top 10 states for hockey participation in 2013-14
1. Minnesota – 54,507
2. Michigan – 50,585
3. New York – 48,354
4. Massachusetts – 48,074
5. Pennsylvania – 30,529
6. Illinois – 29,977
7. California – 25,288
8. New Jersey – 18,438
9. Wisconsin – 17,762
10. Ohio – 14,387
(all numbers courtesy of USA Hockey)