When 6-year-old Evan Gould takes the ice for his youth hockey games, he often emulates moves he has seen his favorite players on the Washington Capitals perform.
"I've been to a lot of games," Evan said. "I like to watch how they do it and then try that in my games. I play defense, and my job is to get the puck away. I love everything about the game."
A quick survey of his bedroom proves it. Posters of Caps players deck the walls and complement bobbleheads and other NHL memorabilia.
Evan's level of interest is what USA Hockey, the sport's national governing body, has hoped for.
"After two seasons of concentrated efforts to grow youth hockey participation in the 4- to 8-year-old age category, there has been a positive impact," said John Coleman, president of the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, an affiliate of the Southeastern District of USA Hockey. "We have seen a major up-tick in our area, and more younger players are getting involved."
Youth hockey has seen a dramatic rise in numbers across the country, according to USA Hockey. The 4- to 8-year-old group has seen a 7 percent increase in membership since the 2007-08 season, including a 4.5 percent growth during the 2009-10 season. Those numbers are even larger in Northern Virginia, where averages have almost doubled those figures.
"It's exploded. We call it the Ovechkin factor," said Larry Roe, coaching director for the Reston Raiders Hockey Club. "The only reason it's not substantially bigger is the lack of available ice."
For the hockey novice, Alexander Ovechkin is one of the top scorers in the National Hockey League. Since he tallied 106 points during his rookie campaign of 2005-06, he has turned the Washington Capitals into winners.
Roe has been involved in hockey in the Northern Virginia area for nearly 20 years. In 1988, his eldest of three sons was playing in the Mount Vernon league; Roe thought the program should expand.
"I wanted to see the sport grow and grow the hockey club, but at the time, those in charge didn't think there was a lot of interest, so I left and started the Reston Raiders Hockey Club with some others," he said. "I thought hockey was much more popular than they gave it credit for, and as it turns out, I think we were right."
Within three years, the Reston Raiders had more than 600 kids playing in its league and were turning people away because of the lack of ice rinks in the area.
"Today, we have about 750 [to] 800 kids, and we are busting at the seams," Roe said.
As the current president of the Reston Raiders, Chris Kelly has been impressed with the number of kids who turn out. The league has a waiting list of about 60 players.
"Where we're growing the sport are from those who never had a parent play and are interested in checking it out," he said. "If they enjoy it, they usually stay with it. Once you get a kid on the ice playing, they are usually hooked."
In recent years, USA Hockey has developed an "American Development Model" that focuses on developing better skills in younger players rather than in playing tournaments.
"For the younger kids, [USA Hockey is] putting the focus on playing locally and spending money on cross ice hockey rather than promoting traveling," Roe said. "I think you will see a decline in the number of teams that go away to tournaments in younger years."
One aspect of the game, however, troubles many players and parents: the cost.
"Playing hockey costs money, and there's no way around it," Coleman said. "Ice cost is a big issue, and the rinks are experiencing ever increasing utility costs. There's no question that when you are dealing with rinks charging what they have to charge per hour, that it's not an inexpensive sport."
To keep costs down, Northern Virginia players can have a very good experience at house/recreational programs and never have to leave their individual rink at Ashburn, Reston, Kettler Capitals Iceplex or Mount Vernon, Coleman said.
Rob Lorenzen has been general manager at Ashburn Ice for 10 years and oversees the Ashburn Icehouse Youth House League.
"We've seen a continual growth in the sport starting at the younger ages, which filters up to the older age groups," he said. "We've been fortunate that the mite and mini-mite age levels have continued to flourish."
But not everyone wants to be in a house league. The amount of travel and cost of participating can vary significantly, depending on what a player or his parents seek from the experience.
Evan plays in a house league, and although his parents considered placing him on a travel team, they decided the time commitment might have been a little too much at this point.
"The travel teams have extra games and schedule-wise, with both of us working, we just couldn't do it," said Mark Gould, Evan's father. "We might consider it next season."
In Northern Virginia, as players try to move up the pyramid into more competitive levels, the travel and cost often increase.
"Playing Raiders travel in the CBHL is going to set back the average family $4,000 for fees, tournaments, hotels and travel," Kelly said.
Equipment also can be expensive. A good pair of skates can cost $100 to $300, a top-of-the-line stick will fetch nearly $400, and kids must wear a host of pads and protection.
To help combat the high costs and keep interest up, USA Hockey offers the One Goal Equipment program, which provides a standardized, less expensive equipment package to players.
The local USA Hockey Affiliate also gave $30,000 in grants this past season to local groups for its Grow the Game program, which is designed to bring the American Development model ideas and philosophy into their programs.
In the meantime, Ovechkin might soon have company as the hero to Virginia hockey fans.
In 2008, Roe's son, Garrett, was the first player born and raised in Virginia to be drafted by an NHL team. The Los Angeles Kings selected him as their 183rd pick; he currently is playing college hockey at St. Cloud University.
"We want everyone to have a good time and learn the best skills they can," Kelly said. "The kids all think they will be playing with Ovechkin someday, which is fantastic, because they all should have that dream."