Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin has made ice hockey cool for Washington area’s youth athletes

February 8, 2012

Jeff Halpern showed up at the Ashburn Ice House to put on a hockey clinic one recent Wednesday evening. What he saw came as a bit of a shock: a crowd.

Halpern, the Washington Capitals’ center, grew up in Potomac and remembers when hockey was a sport for the relatively few young athletes who wanted to try something different from football or baseball. Not anymore.

“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.

Leahey didn’t even like hockey growing up in Springfield. But he developed a passion for the sport after he began attending games at Verizon Center. Like that, Leahey was hooked. And now, at age 40, the game consumes him.

“The game that really drove it home was the Montreal” playoff game in April 2010, Leahey said. “They were down 5-4 and came back, and Backstrom scored in overtime and they won 6-5. That was the game where I said: ‘Oh, man. I’m watching history.’ ”

Leahey, who works in information technology, estimates that he spends about 14 hours a week at the rink, including five-hour Wednesday marathons that begin with Colin’s practice at 5 p.m. and end around 10 after his adult learn-to-play session.

Across the lobby from the locker rooms the Leaheys use, the Capitals’ marketing department works to ensure there are more families like them.

About six years ago, when the team began selling out games, the focus shifted to securing the next generation of fans. The team now sponsors many of the area’s beginner programs by providing jerseys emblazoned with the Capitals’ logo, sticks and water bottles. They also host “Mites on Ice” exhibitions during intermissions at Verizon Center and schedule appearances for their players at schools and local rinks.

“I want them to be Caps fans, and I want them to love Ovi and I want them to root for us,” said Peter Robinson, the Capitals’ amateur hockey and fan development coordinator. “But even if their dad grew up in Philadelphia and they like the Flyers, as long as they’re still hockey fans and playing hockey because of something we were able to help with, they are still supporting the sport. And by supporting the sport, they’re supporting us.”

Trending upward

When Kettler Capitals Iceplex opened atop Ballston Common Mall in 2006, the rink had 48 players ages 5 through 8. This year, the program has 167.

There has been a similar spike in growth at the area’s busiest rinks.

In Rockville, Montgomery Hockey has approximately 170 “mites,” 7- and 8-year olds, playing in the house league and on travel teams, Weiss said. The club has an additional 60 players participating as “atoms,” which consists of 5- and 6-year-olds.

The mite house league program at Ashburn Ice House is open to boys and girls ages 6-8. It grew from eight teams in 2010-11 to a dozen this year — the 138 players are more than twice the number the program had four seasons ago — according to Troy MacCormick, the rink’s hockey director.

“If the Caps stunk, would hockey be this big? No, I don’t think so,” said MacCormick, who added that Loudoun County’s growth also has contributed to Ashburn’s increase.

Less than 15 miles away, the Reston Raiders Hockey Club has a wait list. Despite playing out of a rink that has two sheets of ice, there’s not an additional minute of ice time to be purchased, according to Roe.

“We can’t take any more kids,” said Roe, whose 23-year-old son, Garrett, was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2008 and plays professionally in the minors for the American Hockey League’s Adirondack Phantoms. “Our mini-mite program, our mite program, our [hockey initiation program], all three are full.”

Reston’s registration for the mite spring league filled up in three days last month, Roe said.

Stars of the future

USA Hockey would like to see the numbers of under-8 players — the demographic it considers its core group — to continue to grow at the current rate, but there are plenty of challenges.

The cost of playing remains relatively high when compared with, say, football, baseball or basketball.

One season of house league hockey costs about $1,000 per child. Fees for travel teams are about double that and do not include hotel and travel costs. And that’s before the $500 cost of equipment and skates. A single season playing for the elite Little Capitals club can cost $7,500 or more, including travel.

“It’s certainly an issue, and as we had some difficulties with the economy it became more of an issue,” said John Coleman, president of the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association. “But we’re luckier in our area than other parts of the country because the employment remained steadier than, say, Michigan, around Detroit.”

The boom of mite-age players also has led to hope that Washington and its suburbs might begin to produce a steady stream of players able to compete at the top levels of junior and college hockey in eight to 10 years.

It happened in Pittsburgh, where Mario Lemieux’s arrival in the 1980s and the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup champion seasons in 1991 and 1992 sparked an increase in rink construction, youth participation and helped foster the careers of current NHL players George Parros and R.J. Umberger, to name a couple.

“When I was younger, the best athletes in this area were forced to move toward football and baseball,” said Halpern, who, at 36, remains the only locally born and bred player to secure a full-time job as a player in the NHL. “Now you’ve got so many kids interested in hockey, so there’s a better chance of finding a kid with the right amount of hockey sense and physical talent to go play professionally.”

Leahey, though, remains realistic about the prospects of seeing his son in an NHL jersey someday.

“I don’t want to be the guy who sets those high expectations,” Leahey said. “Being someone of reasonable expectations, hey, if he has something he can enjoy and maybe get through high school playing, or maybe college, that would be great.”

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