Tuesday, February 19, 2013

HOCKEY DAY IN AMERICA

Hello New York and everywhere else, I hope you all enjoyed Hockey Day In America.

Unlike Hockey Day in Canada, the broadcast on NBC did not have the tradition it could have. True, the game is not a part of the American culture as it is in the great white north. But if you think about it, while Canada has been the keeper of this great game, the US has financed it.....at least at the NHL level. Of the original six teams, only two are based in Canada with the other four (75%) being U.S. based clubs. Those numbers continued with expansion and through today.

Herb Brooks
The game at it's grass roots level has all kinds of Canadian tradition. However, the U.S. has been building it's own hockey tradition. Few remember the 1960 U.S. gold medal at the winter Olympic games but just about everyone knows of the Miracle on ice 1980 team. Most hockey historians point to the Herb Brooks coached team as the catalyst for the growing strength of the game in the lower 48. Many of the guys I played with and most U.S. born NHLers point to that team and that historic event as their inspiration. Sure, I was already in love with the game before Kenny Morrow won his gold medal and four consecutive Stanley Cups with the NY Islanders but it sure didn't hurt.

I had begun playing at a pretty young age for an American kid. The sport was a big hit in my neighborhood so I had a chance to play street, roller and even on ice as a five year old right through junior high school. Unfortunately, Levittown had voted down the school budget and my chance to play organized hockey in high school was eliminated as the result of austerity. It was 1976 and the first part of my playing days had ended. That would not have happened in Canada. The baseball and football programs were not eliminated as they were mainstay community events. Even lacrosse enjoyed support from the town built for the returning GIs of WW II. It took that Olympic team of 1980 and the four Islander Stanley Cups to have the game I love get the needed attention allowing it to grow on Long Island. After the New York Ranger Cup win in '94 I once again laced up the skates and to my surprise, found many more rinks, pro shops and leagues than had existed in my youth.

Area's like Boston and Minnesota had strong youth programs that produced many of the U.S. born players that eventually would play in the NHL back in those days. Now it's much different however. There is a tradition building for this game in areas one wouldn't normally connect with ice hockey. Southern California, Texas, Pittsburgh and yes, even Florida have joined the hockey world. Let me be specific.......

One has to look no further than this years World Junior Championship in Russia. Players like the Rangers J.T. Miller and future NHLer Seth Meyers not only helped USA hockey achieve gold, they are paving the way for the next crop of US born players. This years roster included players from non-traditional areas like Irvine, Calif and Plano, Texas. I even know a few who could be in that next crop.......

The Palm Beach Blackhawks - Champions!
Included in a new group of employees at my last job was a nice lady from Minnesota. She and her husband moved the family to south Florida. Andrea found out about my passion for the game and we hit it off right away. I recall giving her one of my old goalie sticks for her kids thinking it would maybe inspire the boys a little. The family has roots in Finland so I wasn't surprised to find out that she and her husband joined the local rec league as well as signed up the kids for lessons. The kids have since become part of the Palm Beach Blackhawks. Andrea Lorbach is not just a hockey mom but she's a hell of a good hockey mom as the boys are always playing or practicing and one can follow along on Facebook as she and the kids travel the state of Florida and beyond winning games and trophies. Summer usually includes a trip back to Minnesota for a goalie clinic and skating classes with NHLers or Gopher alum. You can click here for a collection of pictures of the boys in action.

My simple point is this, those at my age or older still look north when it comes to the tradition of the game we love so much. But today our boys and girls all over the US are living their own traditions. With over 200 U.S. born players in todays NHL we really do have hockey in our blood here in the lower 48. Guys like Nicky Fotiu and the Mullen brothers were unique in their day. Brian Leetch and Mike Richter who led the US to that 1996 World cup championship proved that the US could develop world class talent consistently. There are several players in the NHL today who grew up playing the same rinks I played on (Matthew Gilroy Michael Komisarek) and perhaps someday it will be the Lorbach brothers winning gold for the U.S.A. during their long NHL careers.

Yes, hockey is growing here in the states and as much as I enjoy looking back, looking forward......USA hockey should provide years and years of tradition in the game I love so much.

----}- Bird
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