Music blared from speakers outside the Vegas Golden Knights’ practice facility while kids ran around with hockey sticks, batting a ball into a couple of nets. Pizza was available nearby.
A similar scene played out a week later steps from the Florida Panthers’ arena before Stanley Cup Final games, with young fans playing inside an inflatable rink underneath palm trees.
The final between Vegas and Florida showcased the benefits of ball and roller hockey in many U.S. markets, with or without professional teams, where ice is hard to come by. The NHL earlier this year launched a street hockey program aimed at knocking down barriers to the sport, with the goal of creating interest in the game, even at more casual levels.
“The influence of our teams going to the South, and you see the players getting drafted out of California, Texas and Florida, and you’re seeing that influence already,” said former player Andrew Ference, who is spearheading the NHL Street program as part of his job with the league. “It’s a great success story that we have some NHLers coming from those areas, but imagine how many kids are left out. … There’s so many kids and families that aren’t going to have the ability to overcome some of those barriers that it takes in those cities.”
Barriers range from cost and time commitments to the competitive nature of youth sports and even many families thinking they don’t belong in hockey. Stakeholders in the sport are trying many avenues to bring down those barriers, and street hockey is one of the latest attempts.
Ference, who played more than 1,000 NHL games as a defenseman from 1999-2015 and won the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, was lucky to have outdoor ice available to him half the year while growing up in Edmonton. Still, he thinks many future pros logged more time playing street hockey in driveways and cul-de-sacs during their formative years.
“All I did when I was a kid was play ball hockey: literally get home from school, go outside, play with my friends,” said retired goaltender Andrew Raycroft, who joined Ference at an NHL Street event in Boston this past weekend. “It’s the easiest way to get into the game. Certainly the cost of skates, sticks, ice time living in the city, it’s really tough. But you can still love the game and play the game.”
As Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “The more kids are playing hockey in any form, the better it is for the growth of the game.” His oldest grandson, Matthew, is a New Jersey high school state champion with a net in his family’s driveway, and his 5-year-old grandson is taking skating lessons.
Getting on the ice to skate is harder in some places.
According to Arena Guide, a site that tracks indoor and outdoor rinks in North America, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Arizona and Oklahoma have only 41 combined — many of them larger arenas not suited for youth hockey. USA Hockey’s last annual report counted just over 6,000 players in those six states combined, which is less than in North Carolina alone thanks to growth spurred by the Hurricanes playing there since 1997.
More ice rinks being are being built in other NHL markets like Dallas, Las Vegas and Tampa, which portends positive signs for the future, according to Bettman, who also pointed out how popular ball hockey has been for quite some time across North America.
Because of that, Ference said he and his colleagues aren’t trying to reinvent what street hockey is — just adding more structure to the old tradition of knocking on doors to see if enough neighborhood kids are around for a pickup game. But for a sport built on a team-first attitude, with attention to detail and discipline engrained from a young age, this isn’t about copying that.
“We don’t have to try to just kind of take ice hockey and put it on the street — basically take the skates off and take the exact same culture and put it on the street,” said Ference, now director of social impact, grown and fan development for the NHL. “Instead, let the kids that are doing the program kind of figure out how they want it to look and feel: What kind of moves do they want to do on a breakaway? What kind of music do they want on the playlist?”
Basically, make hockey fun.
Ference said the league drew inspiration from AND1 basketball, snowboarding and video games to try to see what elements of youth interest, culture and creativity could be derived from them. Basketball and winter sports have evolved as a result, and video games are a case of kids being able to try something without practice, to interact with friends and make mistakes more so than on the ice in organized hockey.
The idea is to create an enjoyable environment similar to flag football where the pressure is off but still open a new gateway to hockey.
“Hopefully getting a lot of the crossover athletes that look at it and see something cool and want to try something new,” Ference said. “They’re not committing their life to it, but you can create a lot of casual fans that way and people that have a good interaction with hockey. They might not be the complete diehard, all of them, but a lot of them will now be introduced to a sport that they wouldn’t have in the past.”