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Booming hockey numbers proof NHL's Southern expansion paying dividends

This Oct. 10, 2011 photo shows young hockey players waiting for their time on the ice at the A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin, Tenn. The NHL's Southern strategy is paying dividends where children now dream of growing up to play in the NHL and win Olympic gold medals for the United States. (AP Photo/Sanford Myers)

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This Oct. 10, 2011 photo shows young hockey players waiting for their time on the ice at the A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin, Tenn. The NHL's Southern strategy is paying dividends where children now dream of growing up to play in the NHL and win Olympic gold medals for the United States. (AP Photo/Sanford Myers)

FRANKLIN, Tenn. - Children fill every bench and sprawl over the floor lacing up hockey skates, eager to hit the ice. Parents hold jackets and patiently wait. Just another typical Saturday morning at the rink.

Except this is the middle of Tennessee.

Atlanta may not be able to hold onto an NHL team, and ponds in the South are for fishing and swimming. But the league's Southern strategy is paying dividends where children now dream of playing in the NHL and winning Olympic gold medals.

Pat Kelleher said USA Hockey's membership has grown significantly in each of the Southern states where the NHL put teams.

"We've truly become a national sport," said Kelleher, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of membership development. "When the NHL expanded, I think that was part of their goal to have a national footprint and not just be in the Northeast or the upper Midwest but to cover the entire country. We benefited from that at USA Hockey because we have participants."

The numbers are growing all around the South—including in Georgia, where Atlanta lost the Thrashers to Winnipeg last summer.

Between 1998-99 and 2010-11, Colorado-based USA Hockey went from 911 members in Georgia to 2,287, an increase of 151 per cent.

North Carolina boomed to 170.5 per cent with a high of 5,812 players last year. Florida, which had about four ice rinks in the 1990s, now has 25 with players jumping from 5,606 to 11,571 (106.4 per cent).

Texas had 11,661 players this past year or 96.6 per cent more, while Tennessee had 2,573 this past season for 118.8 per cent jump.

USA Hockey's national membership is up 18.8 per cent in that span, and Kelleher said recently that USA Hockey has copied some of the outreach programs used in the South to target people in traditional hockey markets, helping the sport overall.

"More people have an opportunity to get on the ice, fall in love with the game and become fans," Kelleher said. "You're not quite at the generational level just yet down in Nashville, but there'll be a generation of kids who grew up playing hockey in Nashville thanks to the Predators.

"And they'll get their kids in it."

That's why the Predators work so hard with youth programs, which fill up in minutes. Sean Henry, Nashville's president and chief operating officer, said baseball has the right model with a grandparent putting a ball, bat or glove in a child's hand almost at birth.

"If you put a stick in a kid's hand, he's going to become a fan. His parents will follow," Henry said. "As he grows up, he will become a single-game buyer, mini-plan buyer, half-season, full-season-ticket holder, a suite holder or buy naming rights to a building someday. You just follow that 6-year-old right on through his life if you will. It's a very simple process."

Results are being seen both on the ice and at the box office.

The Nashville Junior Preds Mite Major team won the Silver Sticks hockey tournament in Ontario earlier this month outscoring the competition 63-7. The Predators honoured that team Monday night in a season where they are on franchise-record pace averaging 16,581 fans per game with 15 sellouts.

A Predators' game hooked Dana Johnson's son, Cody. She and her husband take turns driving 80 kilometres one-way from their home in Centerville, Tenn., so her 12-year-old son can play hockey in Franklin. He's now in his fourth season, and she credits the Predators' introductory four-week program offering free equipment with introducing them to the sport.

"He would've never gotten that opportunity because I would've never paid that kind of money up front to take a chance on a sport he may or may not like," Johnson said.

Hockey is an expensive sport with players needing lots of gear, from skates, sticks, hockey shorts, leggings, elbow and shoulder pads to neck protectors and helmets. Even buying used gear where available can add up to US$350, plus buying a bag to haul it all. Johnson prefers new equipment and estimates spending $800 using careful budgeting to help a son who chose hockey over baseball, football and basketball.

"This is his true love," she said.

Steve Sullivan, now with the Pittsburgh Penguins, watched youth hockey grow from February 2004 when he joined the Predators. He held a week-long hockey camp at A-Game the past two summers with strong demand despite a $325 fee per player. Sullivan expects youth hockey to keep growing—if the local NHL keeps winning.

"No one wants to go see losers," Sullivan said. "I think the sport, especially in that area, is very depending on the organization. If there was no professional hockey team in Nashville, the interest level of the kids in youth hockey would drop dramatically. I definitely think they're tied together."

The Predators are doing their part, having reached the playoffs six of the past seven years and the Western Conference semifinals last season. At the all-star break, they are fifth in the West.

Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2011. Carolina won the Cup in 2006 and Dallas in 1999, while Florida reached the finals in 1996.

Nashville's influence can be seen in at the A-Game Sportsplex hockey rinks any day of the week. But Tim McAllister, A-Game's director of ice and hockey operations, still finds people surprised to learn 16 Tennessee high schools play hockey. There are more than 300 children playing in A-Game's house and travel programs, skating in games as far away as Chicago and Detroit.

"We're seeing a lot of new kids coming into the program. A lot of new faces," McAllister said. "And we do our best to make sure we see the faces from last year, that they're coming back and playing again."

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Online:

USA Hockey: www.usahockey.com

Nashville Predators: www.nashvillepredators.com

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AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh, Pa., contributed to this report.

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