As part of the 10th annual Hockey Weekend Across America, which has morphed into Hockey Week Across America, we are bringing you a series of features surrounding the celebration of players, coaches, officials, rinks and the many volunteers who make our sport great.
Kids in their youth hockey jerseys lined the first rows of TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, while others were out on the field circling the rink where the NHL’s Minnesota Wild hosted the Chicago Blackhawks outdoors for the 2016 Stadium Series.
A light snow fell on the more than 50,000 people in attendance, while those on the north sideline held up cards depicting Minnesota’s “Let’s play hockey” saying that precedes every Wild home game.
There couldn’t have been a better scene for the advertisement of the game of hockey and the inclusive nature of the sport’s weekend of promotion in America.
“I was blown away by it,” said Glen Andresen, the executive director of Minnesota Hockey. “Yes, the Wild played, but it truly felt like a celebration of hockey all over the state. … It was just another kind of celebration where we kind of just pinch ourselves and think, ‘Wow, we really have it good here.’”
The exposure in Minnesota was the most recent success story of USA Hockey’s growing initiative, Hockey Weekend Across America. The weekend features Try Hockey for Free Day, which introduces the game to a new audience and culminates with Hockey Day in America.
Once a humble, little plan by Tom Anastos in Michigan to grow the game he loves, Hockey Weekend Across America has become a key factor in the game’s growth as well as a celebration of the sport.
“We’re always looking for ways to share the great passion and the great part of our American culture that hockey has, and all the benefits that can come from it,” said Dave Fischer, USA Hockey’s senior director of communications. “We also want to pause and take time to celebrate all those that are currently involved.”
This year will have a little special meaning, as in the midst of USA Hockey’s 80th anniversary, it is also the 10th anniversary of Hockey Weekend Across America. And this year’s edition will span an entire week of celebration.
From Feb. 19-26, it will be Hockey Week Across America with a theme to commemorate each day. There will be the now traditional themes of Wear Your Favorite Hockey Jersey Day (Friday), Try Hockey Day (Saturday) and Celebrate Hockey Heroes (Sunday), but the week will include an individual day to salute players (Monday), coaches (Tuesday), officials (Wednesday) and local rinks (Thursday).
The week will begin on Sunday, Feb. 19 with Hockey Day in America. NBC and NBC Sports Network will combine to show four games on Feb. 19, beginning with the New York Rangers hosting the Washington Capitals. NBC will also show the Detroit Red Wings at the Pittsburgh Penguins before NBCSN will finish with the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Chicago Blackhawks and finally the San Jose Sharks holding home ice against the Boston Bruins.
The initiative started in Michigan before becoming one of USA Hockey’s signature events. Anastos, who is now the head men’s hockey coach at Michigan State, was the commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association at the time, as well as part of the board of directors for USA Hockey.
Anastos created a “Have Fun, Play Hockey” program to get kids to try the sport for free. Anastos said 1,000 kids tried hockey in the state during the first Hockey Day in Michigan. The success caught the eye of USA Hockey, who asked Anastos to present his ideas to the national group.
“My thinking was, ‘Boy, it sure would be nice to try to introduce kids to the sport who maybe don’t have the typical visibility that a dad might bring. I’m going to introduce my son to the game,’” Anastos said. “We want to introduce new people to hockey, or at least get them thinking a little bit about trying hockey because, to me, in my experience with it, when people try it, more often than not they like it. When they like it, then they stick with it. So, it was, ‘How can we get more than just the traditional hockey family to try the sport?’”
Hockey Weekend Across America was started in 2008. Last year, a record 12,080 kids across the country participated in the signature event, USA Hockey’s Try Hockey for Free. USA Hockey states there were more than 330 Try Hockey for Free events in 45 states. According the organization’s website, more than 116,000 children have been introduced to the sport over the past six seasons.
“It was a cool thing,” Anastos said of USA Hockey’s development of the programs. “They’ve taken it to a terrific level and I think it’s making an impact on both the visibility and the growth of the game.”
The impact can be seen at the local levels, such as the growth in Minnesota Hockey.
Andresen said last year Minnesota Hockey set a record for 8U players at 17,656. This year, they organization hopes to reach 18,000 kids playing at the 8U level.
“Here’s just another weekend, another day, where we really are celebrating hockey all over the country but in particular here in Minnesota and inviting more people to be a part of it,” Andresen said. “We want as many people to experience this culture as possible.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.