Grass roots hockey thriving in Sun Belt

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

Gary Bettman won't get much praise in a room full of Canadian media for the NHL's decision to locate so many teams in the Sun Belt.

But the commissioner had a strong ally Thursday in USA Hockey's executive director Dave Ogrean, who pumped some air back into falling North American minor hockey league registration numbers with some good news from the south.

"Gary takes a lot of knocks for expanding into non-traditional markets that weren't immediately successful," Ogrean said as the Molson Canadian Hockey Summit concluded. "But in our programs at the grass roots level, in Atlanta, in Phoenix, in Texas, in Florida and in the Carolinas, it has been phenomenal. We have more of a national footprint today.

"When an NHL team moves into a state or region for the first time, you see minor hockey grow. There was a wonderful trivia question about which state had the most pro franchises and the answer was Texas and Florida, because they had so many hockey teams, with the NHL, East Coast league, sometimes the Central League. The sport grows where you plant it and the biggest seed is the NHL."

CASH CRUNCH

The summit produced great ideas and passionate debate, but the inescapable problem is that the world economy is lagging and it's not getting cheaper for ice time and equipment.

Soccer is so much more inexpensive and more immigrants come to North America without ice in their veins.

"That is a challenge here," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said. "Certain costs are there that will never go away.

"One thing we've talked about through these sessions is that we see hockey from September through April. Maybe we should take the model of other sports and have only six- to seven-week seasons so kids can get (introduced) to the game. Kids can play until Christmas and then go skiing. We can get more flexible about things such as body-checking.

"We're going to have to try and get into elementary schools, but the first step is to make sure they get on the ice. Everyone's goal here -- the NHL, the CHL -- is to get more kids on the ice, more fans to the game. We also have to work hard with all our partners, whether it's governments or corporate, to get equipment on young kids that is affordable."

Nicholson is looking to overhaul some Hockey Canada regulations that pre-date World War II. Some suggestions include a complete non-contact stream and allowing boys and girls to play on teams with their friends.

NO FEAR OF FEHR

Donald Fehr will be a worthy adversary for the NHL when he takes over the players union later this year. But he has two old business friends in deputy commissioner Bill Daly and Maple Leafs president Brian Burke, both of whom have served with him on the board of directors of the sports lawyers association.

"He's bright and capable and if that's the guy, then they've selected a top dog," Burke said.

"I always assume that the guy on the other side of the table is going to give us a hard battle. But we have a pretty good leader too (in Bettman). In my mind, a strong union is better for the sport than a fractured one."

STANLEY A STAR

Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough recently had his day with the Stanley Cup and took it on a nostalgic trip. to his hometown of Niles, Ill., near Chicago, to the house he was born and raised in, to the home of his 98-year-old father and to his mother's grave.

"One thing, I was blown away by was the power of the Cup," he told QMI's Chris Stevenson. "You see the players go to their respective cities, but the ultimate rock star is the Cup."

ICE CHIPS

The Penguins are not going to bring back 39-year-old winger Bill Guerin due to a salary-cap crunch, but he intends to play another year ... Team Canada women's coach Mel Davidson had a good line Thursday when asked if the day would ever come when a European nation would win Olympic gold to end the Canada-U.S. monopoly. "Hopefully, yes," she said. "But I will be long retired." ... The Red Wings have introduced variable premium pricing for selected opponents this year. Ironically, the most expensive will not be the Cup-champion Hawks, but the 29th-place Leafs on March 26, with $25 US seats up to $40, and $85 ducats now $110 ... Bettman took some heat for gimmicks that were tried during last week's research and development camp, agreeing that 2-on-2 overtime isn't going to happen. But experiments, such as fat blue lines and three faceoff dots, had a purpose. "You want to be ahead of the curve," he said. "We also satisfied ourselves that some things were absurd." Bettman also said he's in favour of a 19- or 20-year-old draft age, to ease personnel decisions on the clubs, but is realistic that the players association would fight that in future CBAs.


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