America’s favorite pastime has always been considered baseball. However, in the past few years, hockey has grown to be quite a popular sport as well. With every NHL game being broadcast on cable television networks, as well as most AHL games, fans are popping up everywhere.
A big number of these fans include school-aged kids, ranging anywhere from grade school students to college students. As a result, students are signing up to play ice hockey.
“The number of players went up from last year to this year,” said Jason Hawkins, head coach of the Glenbard Hockey Team. Glenbard is a local team in the suburbs of Chicago comprised of students from three different high schools in the same district. “We merged so we could have a JV team and more kids could play,” Hawkins said.
According to USA Hockey, youth hockey is seeing a dramatic rise. Roughly 353,000 youth players registered for the 2006-2007 hockey season; in that same year, there were 181 teams in junior hockey and six different levels of competition, which was a record-breaking number. In the 2008-2009 hockey season, 199 junior hockey teams were registered.
One thing that is worrisome to many players and parents is the high cost of the sport. “The equipment is expensive and we get no support from the schools, so it comes out of the parents’ pockets,” Hawkins said. In fact, since most teams do not have their own ice arenas, local arenas must be rented out for practices and games. The Glenbard team pays $350 per hour to rent out the arena in their area. “Each team practices for three hours a week,” Hawkins said.
At Total Hockey, an online hockey equipment store, a pair of skates can cost anywhere from $100 to $800 and even something as simple as a hockey stick cast cost as much as $200. That does not begin to cover everything a player needs to compete. Yet Hawkins insists that the bad economy has not hindered the amount of players competing each year.
Laura Johnson, the registrar at The Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI), has similar thoughts. “Even with the high cost of playing hockey, many families will find a way to have their kids participate in what most of us know is the greatest game on Earth,” Johnson said.
Hockey does not seem to just be a passing phase to students. “A lot of our kids continue on to play college hockey and some continue on to play junior hockey,” Hawkins said of his players. The number of college club teams has risen as well. After Hawkins graduated high school in 1997, he played college hockey and there were four or five college teams in Illinois. Now, according to The AHAI, are 12 college club teams in Illinois. This includes smaller schools, such as Robert Morris University and Wheaton College, as well as bigger state schools, such as University of Illinois and Illinois State.
The economy has shown no match for the dedication of younger hockey players across Illinois, as well as the United States. Kids and adults alike cannot seem to get enough of this newly popular sport. The reason? Everyone may have a different opinion, but for Hawkins, the popularity of NHL teams seems to draw more and more players. “Since the Hawks have gotten more popular, we have seen a growth in hockey,” he said.
Laura Johnson agrees. “There is no doubt that the success of the Chicago Blackhawks has had a tremendous positive impact on the interest in youth hockey in Illinois,” she said. But even if the Hawks start losing, hockey does not appear to be going away anytime soon.