“There’s been a boom in the area,” said Halpern, who like others attributes the shift largely to the success of the Caps and the popularity of players such as Alex Ovechkin. “Now you have Ovi and Nicklas Backstrom, who are not just good players on the Caps, they’re good throughout the league.”
Ovechkin’s MVP awards in 2008 and 2009 and the team’s emergence as the region’s only winning professional franchise have fueled an explosion in youth hockey players in Maryland and Virginia the past four years. It also has given area youth hockey administrators hope the increased numbers could make the Washington area the next hotbed of hockey prospects.
“It’s the ‘Ovi factor,’ no question about it,” said Larry Roe, the coaching director of the Reston Raiders Hockey Club. “It’s got kids excited about hockey and the Caps.”
The age group that has seen the strongest surge is boys and girls ages 8 and younger. From 2006-07 through the 2010-11 season, participation among that age group in the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, amateur hockey’s governing body in the District, Maryland and Virginia, spiked from 832 to 1,298, or a 56 percent increase, according to USA Hockey. Though the raw numbers remain a far cry from hockey strongholds such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, that growth rate is well ahead of the national average of 23.9 percent during the same time period.
In just the past two years, the Potomac Valley region has experienced a 26.8 percent increase in participation in the under-8 age group. The national growth rate in the same time period was 15 percent.
“It’s a big honor for me when people want to play like me and be Alex Ovechkin,” Ovechkin said. “It’s great. Right now in D.C., hockey is really popular. You see the labels on the cars. When I first got here, three people was in the stands. If somebody screams something bad, you can hear it.”
While there is no scientific way to measure exactly how much of an impact Ovechkin’s arrival and the Capitals’ success has had on area participation numbers, the anecdotal evidence at local rinks abounds.
“You can just see it in the building,” said Bob Weiss, the executive director of the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association, the area’s largest club. “You can see the red jerseys. You can listen to the conversations about the Capitals. Ovechkin is that extra 10 percent.”
Next generation of fans
On a recent Monday evening, Don Leahey stood at center ice, skates laced tightly, stick in hand. He was barking out instructions to dozens of boys and girls at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the Capitals’ practice rink and team headquarters in Arlington, where he coaches both of his children’s house league teams. Son Colin, 7, and daughter Jordan, 10, began playing last year.