Gibson: Hockey’s surprising southern spread
Dominic Gibson | Friday, October 23, 2020
When most people think about ice hockey, they think about cities like Montreal, Boston, Chicago and Detroit. They think about places where there is true winter, snow and bitter cold being the norms. They think about the numerous city rinks, where tournaments and leagues are played nearly every other day. But what about hockey in the South? How has the traditional winter game faired in places where sometimes, the temperature does not drop below 75 degrees? By the looks of it, hockey seems to be alive and well in the Southern part of the Unites States and there are several telling signs to back this claim.
The first sign one can point to is fan interest among NHL franchises. Though not steeped in rich and extensive years of hockey history, teams such as the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights have certainly carved a market for themselves, both locally and nationally. All four of these teams mentioned rank in the upper half of league attendance, far above other teams that you might consider to be located in traditional markets. While there are certainly instances where Southern hockey has failed, Atlanta being one of the best examples, the success stories far outnumber the shortcomings. True, winning product on the ice is a big reason for such loyal support among non-traditional hockey market teams. It is my firm belief however, that many of these Southern franchises have established enough of a devoted fan base that even sub-par results would not diminish the interest in the game.
The next big sign is the entrustment of large, nationally televised NHL events to non-traditional market teams. Out of the last 10 NHL All-Star events, six have been awarded to franchises located in the South. Outdoor hockey games have shared similar success in unlikely places. While a relatively new idea, the Stadium Series started its annual tradition six years ago at Dodger Stadium. And speaking of outdoor hockey, the NHL’s premier event, the Winter Classic, was held deep in the heart of Texas in front of a sold-out Cotton Bowl Stadium. I remember vividly the hockey purists’ outrage when a Dallas vs. Nashville Winter Classic was announced in 2019.
“You can’t play outdoor hockey in the South,” was a very common retort among said purists. “I’m sure people have no idea what hockey is in Dallas or Nashville,” was another popular comment that came up online. On Jan. 1, 2020, I along with 85,629 other fans in Dallas proved just how much hockey meant in the South, as the Stars put away the Predators in a third period comeback 4-2.
One final, and arguably the most important sign that hockey has grown and will continue to grow in these southern cities, is the investment and development of youth hockey. Dallas has been a pioneer on this front and has shown the way for other cities. When the Stars moved from Minnesota to Dallas in 1993, one of the big plans put in place to garner fans was the building of local community rinks and the establishment of youth teams and tournaments. This not only made the kids that joined these teams and leagues fans of the Stars but made their family and friends fans as well.
But hockey in Texas has grown outside the city of Dallas, spreading to places like El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio. In fact, Kraft Hockeyville selected El Paso, Texas as the winner of Hockeyville USA and $150,000 in rink upgrades. Other cities have followed this winning recipe as well with places like Nashville and Las Vegas taking greater interest and care into youth hockey. And now more than ever, we are starting to see the rewards of this investment as Southern talent has begun to make its mark in the NHL. Guys like Seth Jones and Blake Coleman of Texas, as well as Auston Matthews out of California, have shown just how promising the future is for hockey in the South.
So, when hockey makes its return, and we are all finally able to gather together and share live sports again, I’d love to invite y’all to sit with me sometime, and enjoy the great game that has spread across the United States.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.