Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
While the NHL and hockey as a whole is often considered to be the little brother of the “big four” sports in America, the game is still growing in the states and it’s translating to more Americans playing the game both recreationally and at the NHL level.
Numbers recently released by QuantHockey.com showed that not only is the number of Canadian players currently in the NHL below 50 percent for the first time ever, but the number of American players is at an all-time high, just under 25 percent. To get a better idea of what’s behind the surge of Americans playing in the NHL, CBS Local Sports spoke with Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of operations for USA Hockey.
Johannson handles all of USA Hockey’s on-ice operations, from the youth department, the American player development department, junior hockey and women’s hockey teams, and the coaching department. Additionally, Johannson has helped put together national teams, most recently the 2010 USA men’s hockey team that took home the silver medal in Vancouver.
We spoke with Johannson about the future of American hockey, the surge of American players in the NHL, and NHL expansion in an exclusive interview.
(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)
CBS Local Sports: What does the study from QuantHockey indicating fewer Canadians and more Americans in the NHL today tell you about the way hockey is trending in the U.S.?
Jim Johannson: “I think some of it has to do with increased exposure to the NHL and kids having the opportunity to get on the ice for the first time thanks to exposure to new facilities. We’re obviously proud of USA Hockey. Our membership and our growth department for the last five-six years has had a huge emphasis on increasing our eight-and-under numbers, and we’ve done that.
Bottom line is two-fold, we’re finding new avenues to get kids into our game and we’re keeping kids in our game longer with things like the American Development Model and Cross-Ice Hockey. More and more kids are enjoying the sports at a young age, and our data pretty much shows that if we keep these kids for three years, we pretty much keep them playing hockey long-term.”
CBS Local Sports: You’ve been with U.S. Hockey since 2000, what has changed the most since you joined the organization?
Johannson: “I think the overall growth of our game as a whole, but also kind of the growth of the facilities and youth organizations and partnerships within those facilities. Certainly the growth of the NHL into the non-traditional markets and with that they’re enhanced in both facilities in those areas and in youth hockey.”
CBS Local Sports: Speaking of non-traditional markets, a kid like Auston Matthews who played for the National Development Team, what does it tell you that a future No. 1 prospect is coming from a place like Arizona?
Johannson: “I think the neat part of it is that players and athletes can really develop in all sorts of settings. I think that the great part of the case of Auston is that he certainly ended up in a place in Scottsdale, Arizona that pushed him as a player and allowed him to develop to a very advanced stage. In the meantime it allowed any kid interested in playing hockey in that area the chance to have a program they could play in. I think it’s neat that a great player can excel yet the recreational player has a close by facility to enjoy the game for as long as they can.”
CBS Local Sports: Do you think NHL expansion into markets like Las Vegas and other markets will help development of American hockey players?
Johannson: “It always does. I think the exposure of the game on both television and in the local market piques the interest of kids and families.”
CBS Local Sports: You’ve had a major hand in the National Team Development Program (NTDP), how important do you think that is and has been in developing American hockey?
Johannson: “I think it’s been vital, but I think it’s been vital from not only the standpoint of players who have participated in that program and the training and advanced development that they get there, but secondly it’s also raised the bar across the country with kids aspiring to get to our program and put the USA jersey on. It shows the level of play that’s needed now, at all levels, to do that. I think a by-product of NTDP and all the players that come through there has been other programs putting in better training practices, better practice programs and better competition schedules, which has lead to overall better training of the athletes. When we have a trial camp, I just see a deep and deeper pool of American player from a wide variety of backgrounds aspiring to get to the NTDP program.”
CBS Local Sports: Once players are set to leave the NTDP, what do you guys recommend to players as the next steps to get them to the next level?
Johannson: “We always emphasize a few areas, number one being don’t rush your development and maybe let the development come through the process that’s pretty well established as they get higher up into it. I think every player, when we start talking about the top players, they need to be in a social and academic and a hockey setting that they’re comfortable in and want to be in. We obviously believe in college hockey and believe in the social, academic and hockey that that provides for the players, coupled with allowing as much time as needed for that player to develop before he moves on to the next level. But it’s obviously not the setting for all players.
The kids who play junior hockey, that’s fine, that’s a good path. We try to emphasize to them that if that’s the path, make sure there’s more to it than just the hockey. Make sure the social aspects and academic component is all a part of your life and try to balance those three. What we’ve found is that once one of those three is out of balance, the other two are not far behind and so, again, I think that’s both a player and a family decision based on their level of comfort and what they’re aspiring to.”
CBS Local Sports: There’s been talk about the NHL pulling their players from future international tournaments, namely the Olympics in 2018. How do you think that would affect USA Hockey’s progress?
Johannson: “Well, it’d make my job a heck of a lot tougher for one (laughing). I think in the end, the big organizations like ourselves or Hockey Canada, and certainly the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), to a degree, we all are ambassadors to the game. We need to partner up as best we can for the game to be healthy and for the game to grow and for the betterment of the game as a whole, and there has to be compromise no matter what in accomplishing all of that.
We are the first ones to both appreciate and recognize the dollars that NHL owners put into their players, and I don’t like calling them assets, but they are, and we completely appreciate that. Yet we’ve got players that developed in grassroots programs that love putting the USA on. So I really think it’s a balance for all of us to find what we can do to service the game, service the fans, both NHL and international fans, and in the end create a healthy environment for all of us and for the sport to prosper in. And that’s complicated and to be honest.
Since 1998, with NHL participation at the Olympics, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have that kind of a relationship and we’ve always managed a way to make it work. And like everything else it’s probably going to get more and more complicated as the cost of business goes up for everybody.”
CBS Local Sports: Obviously the USA Women’s team has done some great things, how important is developing women’s hockey to the sport’s growth going forward?
Johannson: “It’s a huge part of it. I don’t have my exact numbers with me but I think we’re 65,000 or better in overall players, which if you look at when they first got women’s hockey going in the Olympics, we’ve more than doubled participation. I think it can go nowhere but up, and I think the partnership and commitment from NCAA programs has been absolutely huge to the advancement of the game with the girls all having a next level to get to.
You’re also seeing the footsteps of something after that with the formation of the women’s professional league, which is going to have a ways to go but that’s ok, it got started. I think we’ve had pockets of the country that have really done a great job of both having female specific programs but also good development programs for the female player. I think one of USA Hockey’s task is to continue to grow those opportunities for girls that, again, whatever level they can aspire to, we hope to be able to create programming and have a development system in place that allows that for them.”
CBS Local Sports: Do you see with a lot of kids that are looking up to American superstars like Pavelski, Kessel, Kessler, Miller, etc…?
Johannson: “Yeah, I think more and more they do, but I think it really is a little market driven. The great part of our sport is I love that Pittsburgh kids would love Sidney Crosby (laughing). He’s a great ambassador for the game and it doesn’t matter that he’s Canadian or anything like that, Sidney Crosby has helped grow our game. Steve Yzerman did an incredible job in Michigan just by being Steve Yzerman. More and more kids got into the game because of the way a guy like Steve carried himself on and off the ice and how Steve enjoyed the game and gave back to the game. We love when it’s the American guys they’re idolizing, but most importantly it’s good people and good sportsmen in their area.”
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for either of his other three teams.