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Hockey healthier than ever in United States in 2014

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Nikko Landeros and his Paralympic teammates gave Americans reason to cheer this year. (USATSI)
Nikko Landeros and his Paralympic teammates gave Americans reason to cheer this year. (Getty Images)

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America's birthday seemed like as good an excuse as any to take a look at a sport that may not have originated in the United States, but has continued to grow an adoring base over the years. As we enter the latter half of 2014, there's reason to believe the game of ice hockey is healthier than it has ever been in the United States. From successful NHL clubs to American-born players achieving star status in the US sports landscape, to massive growth at the grassroots level, hockey is making its way rather nicely in the good ol' USA.

American hockey fans are an interesting breed. We come in smaller number than that of other sports and we're referred to less as hockey fans and more as "the hockey community." It seems everybody knows everybody in some small way, bonded by their love of fitting into what most Americans would consider a niche sport. The few, the proud, or something like that.

But the number is growing, perhaps rapidly. The NHL enjoyed record revenues of a reported $3.7 billion in the 2013-14 season. USA Hockey reported record growth in the number of people playing hockey last season. More kids participated in try hockey for free events than ever before. TV ratings were at an all-time high for the NHL in the United States as the NHL sold out outdoor games in Ann Arbor, Mich., New York, Chicago and LOS ANGELES.

NBC enjoyed an 11 percent boost in average viewership over the last full regular season, marking a record for hockey on the network.

The Olympics, bolstered by the shootout performance of T.J. Oshie against Russia, captivated the country in a way similar to that of the tremendous 2010 tournament. Though it ultimately ended in disappointment without a medal, the impact of the Winter Games remained evident as it essentially turned Oshie into a household name overnight and the number of USA jerseys popping up at various events seemed to be on the rise.

American players continued to impress in the NHL as well. Three of the top six goal scorers in the NHL were American-born players, led by Joe Pavelski and his 41 goals, Max Pacioretty with 39 and Phil Kessel with 37.

Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks put together another dazzling season, cementing himself as the biggest American star in the game today with 69 points and a tremendous playoff performance that included several highlight-reel plays that caught the attention of sports fans far and wide. He will likely become one of the highest-paid players in the game after his next deal with the Blackhawks.

Before Justin Williams' win this year, the three previous Conn Smythe winners for playoff MVP were American-born, with Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick and Kane taking home the honors in 2011, '12 and '13.

The Los Angeles Kings, with a second Stanley Cup in three seasons, showed that hockey is alive and well in the Golden State. In fact, the Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks were among the best teams in the league during the regular season, making sure that any team that came into California was going to have a tough time.

And back to those outdoor games. The NHL filled Michigan Stadium with more than 100,000 hockey fans for the Winter Classic. Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium saw 100,000 visitors for hockey over a 16-hour period for the first of the Stadium Series events. And the curiosity of outdoor hockey outside of the Winter Classic paid off with high TV ratings as well. The league attempted to flex its muscle a bit and succeeded.

The league has been enjoying another renaissance in the US since the last lockout. Fourteen American NHL clubs reported average attendance figures that surpassed 95 percent capacity, with the Blackhawks enjoying the highest attendance of any team in the league with more than 927,000 patrons over the 41 home games.

While the health of the league seems to be heading in such a positive direction, it's the growth of hockey as a sport Americans are playing that shows the game is healthier than we thought.

USA Hockey saw a record 519,547 people register as amateur hockey players across the country, busting the previous high by more than 8,000 players. States like Pennsylvania and Illinois, long home to many hockey players, have enjoyed large spikes in players thanks in part to the success of local NHL teams. Non-traditional markets like California, Texas and Florida have grown exponentially over the past 20 years.

Bolstered a bit by the glitz and glam of the Olympics, USA Hockey held two Try Hockey Free Days with events across the country for kids aged 4-9. They saw 28,446 new players come to try the game for the first time, an increase of more than 11,000 players from similar events the year before. That's pretty remarkable.

Meanwhile, the US collected plenty of hardware internationally, with the US Olympic Women's Hockey Team collecting silver medal in Sochi. The US Men's National Under-18 Team, featuring future American star and possible top pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft Jack Eichel, won its fifth gold medal in six years at the World Under-18 Championship.

And one of the highlights of the year for American hockey was the US Paralympic Sled Hockey Team winning its second consecutive gold medal at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi. The gold-winning goal was scored by Joshua Sweeney, less than five years after losing both of his legs in Afghanistan while serving with the Marines.

The United States still has a long way to go in its quest to become a perennial hockey power, as the last performance by the US men in Sochi showed, but there are efforts being made to make the game more accessible to more people and break down the barriers of cost. Additionally, those working in youth hockey are doing all they can to help players improve and stick with the game longer through new initiatives to keep America strong on the ice.

If there's one thing to celebrate about Americans on this Fourth of July, it's that they love a challenge. Hockey's not the top sport, and the US is not the best at it, but that won't stop those who love the game from trying to change that someday.

With more people playing than ever before, more people watching and the NHL thriving, the sky is the limit for hockey in this country.

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