The 1990s and early 2000s contained a period of rapid growth in the United States. The NHL reflected this growth, expanding into markets and building arenas that had traditionalists shaking their heads. The NHL at this time took a largely top-down approach to market-building, believing that an NHL team could result in the emergence of a ticket-buying hockey community. Given enough time and playoff success, the NHL has proven you can at least build a hockey community, if not a ticket-buying one. Derek Zona's article on an influx of professional players from Florida and California is a testament to this. But I wasn't sure at the time, nor am I now, that an increase in numbers of registered youth hockey players is the best barometer for the success of a hockey community. I asked then, as I ask now, if children are playing hockey in their streets, driveways, parking lots. I think a fair comparison was the large growth of the AYSO program for soccer from the 1970s to the 1990s, which resulted in a near right-of-passage for U.S. boys to play soccer until they reached Pop-Warner age. Those boys (and sometimes girls) were playing organized soccer but football in the schoolyard.
Without a doubt, access is still the issue for youth that want to play hockey, and cost is only part of it. Local skating rinks might be free, but rarely allow kids to play hockey. Indoor rinks typically strain to get into the black, and so are often completely occupied with practices, open skates, figure skating, curling, etc. and very expensive to rent. These costs will not decrease unless a critical component, ice, is either maintained far more efficiently or replaced with synthetic ice.
It is possible that the growth of indoor rinks was too rapid to sustain, and while a great success for smaller communities, very likely a costly burden in more trying times.
The NHL has made some strides to address access, evidenced by the old NHL Street program and the newer Hockey for Everyone initiative. But the emphasis is still largely on building indoor, ice hockey programs, curbing annual registration costs through NHL and private donations.
The recent success of The Winter Classic has afforded us a ripe moment for thought. Could youth hockey benefit from moving outdoors?
The Classic has brought new attention to outdoor rink technology, and though the novelty could wear off eventually the money will still be there long enough to experiment with all-season surfaces and simpler rink set-ups. An outdoor rink can host roller hockey in warmer months, and ice hockey provided there are colder months. The Clark Park Rink in Detroit incorporates basketball hoops for a more multi-purpose surface that can appeal to city/town officials. A program in St. Louis called City Hockey is working on securing approval to build an outdoor, synthetic ice rink in Tilles Park. These sorts of initiatives can be sustained quite easily after the initial investment, particularly in warmer weather areas.
Taking back the rose-colored lenses a bit, an outdoor rink requires a community to believe in it. Anyone trying to begin the process would need to identify a group of people willing to do the initial work, whether it be long-serving members of the existing hockey community or first-timers (the NHL showing interest in helping would certainly bring out the latter). Roller hockey rinks that could become ice hockey rinks in the winter usually need a rotation of adults willing to flood. A lot of youth programs are trading volunteer service for a reduction in registration fees or other costs. Other adults could help collect and maintain rental equipment, referee games (it only takes a few hours at a seminar for certification), coach teams. It really depends on how extensive the community wants the program to be. But it is this community that will love and support a local NHL team, regardless of performance.
Overall, if the NHL (or individual, philanthropic players) truly wants to institute Hockey for Everyone in a way that can be sustainable, it should look to reflect that sustainability in how it is spending its money on the program itself. Outdoor areas such as those in Detroit and St. Louis (which are a part of Hockey for Everyone) should be the norm, not the exception. They cost far less than indoor rinks, use far less energy, and create a space for hockey that is accessible to any eager child with a sunny afternoon, a stick, and a ball. If you think this can't build a hockey community, take a minute to recall the parents who drive for hours and give up vacation days so their kids merely have a chance to play, and all those future Trottier's, Crosby's, Gretzky's, shoveling, innovating, searching for a good stretch of ice or asphalt so they can snap a few more wristers short-side, top shelf. Too many of these people are on the wrong side of a numbers game.
Finally, if you have the time in late December, take a trip up Highway 13 to Phillips, Wisconsin, and help them with a flood. The hockey community in that tiny town (1,600) has been there over 20 years, but they'll be more than happy to give you a spot on the hose, and some hot coffee afterwards.