Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, can say with confidence that the sport is in exceptional shape as the organization celebrates its 80th season.
Ogrean was joined on Wednesday by two-time Olympians Patrick Kane and Hilary Knight, who play professionally with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and NWHL’s Boston Pride, respectively, to commemorate Hockey Week Across America. The three ambassadors celebrated the growth of women’s ice hockey in addition to the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, the Michigan-based residency program for top Under-17 and Under-18 men’s players.
“If you look at the numbers and growth, it’s exciting and it’s a great time to be involved in the sport,” Knight said. “It’s a fun sport you want to share with everybody, and I hope everyone continues to sign up and the numbers continue to grow.”
USA Hockey started Hockey Weekend Across America in 2008 to lead the hockey community in celebrating the game at all levels while also exposing the sport to new audiences. For the program’s 10th anniversary, Hockey Weekend Across America turned into a weeklong celebration involving traditional themes where fans can wear their favorite hockey jersey, celebrate local hockey heroes and also salute local rinks, among other hockey-related activities.
“I’m always excited about playing hockey, but this is just a great week to celebrate the sport in general,” Knight said. “I know it can be daunting when you think about all the equipment and the ice time you need, but USA Hockey has made it a lot easier to be able to try hockey for free.”
“Try Hockey For Free Day” will take place Saturday where kids, ages 4 to 9, will have an opportunity to try youth hockey in nearly 400 sites as part of Hockey Week Across America. Visit tryhockeyforfree.com for additional information and participating rinks.
The program experienced a milestone earlier this month, setting a new USA Hockey single-season national participation record for 8U hockey when Cora Dwyer from Pittsburgh became the 107,723rd 8U player for the 2016-17 season.
“Once our kids begin playing the game, we want to make sure they have a good experience and stay with it,” Ogrean said.
Kane is the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner as the NHL’s regular-season scoring champion and the second American-born player to capture the Hart Trophy as season MVP. He’s also a highly successful product of the NTDP, breaking the organization’s single-season record for points, while tying the single-season record for goals and assists from 2004-2006.
Kane, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, finished second on the NTDP all-time list in career goals and points.
“Looking back, it couldn’t have worked out any better to go to that program,” said Kane, who became the first American-born player to record 20 or more goals in each of his first 10 NHL seasons.
“At that time in my career, I was very undersized and I think it was great for me because there was so much focus on what you’re doing on the ice and just as much with what you’re doing off the ice. I’m very fortunate to have been selected for the program, and I think it had a huge impact on my development.”
Kane indicated a 50-percent growth rate in Chicago since he joined the league, a figure backed by Illinois and its No. 5 ranking in terms of players involved in a USA Hockey program. Minnesota, Michigan, New York and Massachusetts round out the top five.
“It’s fun seeing little kids come to the games, and it’s fun to see the excitement they have about playing hockey,” Kane said.
Kane, who has already led the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup titles, said that winning the U18 world championship in 2006 was the high point of his NTDP career. Ogrean called the program — celebrating its 20th season — a success in the last two decades, adding the United States has more World Junior Championship titles (3) in this decade than any other nation and has also won the U18 title six of the last eight years.
The United States has also captured the two most recent international championships, claiming gold at the World Junior Championships and women’s U18 championships. Additionally, Buffalo, New York, will host the upcoming World Junior Championships, the first time the United States hosted the major international tournament since 2011.
“We just weren’t getting it done in tournaments and we wanted to have a system we felt would produce more players capable of performing when it mattered the most,” said Ogrean, who added another goal was to put more high-performing American players into the NHL. “You don’t win every year and you’re never as successful as you’d like to be, but it has had immeasurable impact on improving performance at international tournaments.”
The same can be said on the women’s side. More than 73,000 girls and women are playing hockey, which represents a 20-percent increase from a decade ago. The impact will be felt later this year when the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship will take place at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.
“It’s a really exciting time to be playing women’s hockey,” Knight said. “We are absolutely thrilled about hosting the women’s world championship.”
Ogrean would like to see continued growth of women’s hockey, and he believes that can happen with one healthy women’s professional hockey league and additional female coaches at the highest level.
For now, Knight is proud to be a flag bearer for the current state of women’s hockey, which is on the rise. Knight has helped Team USA win six world championships and two Olympic silvers, and she also led Wisconsin to the college national championship game four straight years, winning two titles.
“I’d obviously like to see the growth continue to increase,” Knight said. “It’s just a good time to be involved in women’s ice hockey.”
Also on Wednesday, Ogrean announced that Guy Gosselin would coach the U.S. national sled hockey team in the upcoming world championships in South Korea. He replaces former coach Jeff Sauer, who died unexpectedly earlier this month.
“We lost an iconic figure in our sport when Jeff Sauer passed away,” Ogrean said. “Jeff’s contributions to hockey are numerous. I know he would be very pleased when I share that Guy Gosselin will be taking over the reigns as head coach of our sled hockey team.”