With hockey in the Bay Area on the rise, the only issue is finding more ice

via www.sharksiceatsanjose.com

Hockey.

A sport born from mother nature's harsh winter tongue, her unforgiving breath stifled and transformed as skates and sticks breathe life into the leafless trees and graying horizons found across the plain. It is a sport that reminds us of a primal past where the battle between man and nature was not a weekend vacation but a necessity for survival-- to contend with the elements is to understand your own humanity. It is to find your own soul.

And yet in a state where the term "winter" is used to describe that two-month period of the year where rain might happen to fall every three days or so, the sport has blossomed. According to USA Hockey, California has seen a 9.7% increase in registered players with the organization in the last decade, a number that now totals above 20,000 youth and adult players. Furthermore, for the first USA Hockey history, the organization enrolled over 110,000 kids across the nation this year from the ages of 5-7. That groundswell of interest from the younger generation, one that has been raised on the X-Games and other extreme sports which hockey shares many similiarities with, is a very positive trend to see.

Especially for a sport that has been relegated to niche-sport status in the United States since the NHL Lockout in 2004-2005.

“Since the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks arrived in the early 1990s, the number of registered players in the Pacific region has increased by 240 percent,” USA Hockey's Executive Director Dave Ogrean told the New York Times earlier this year. “The fact that we now have NHL teams in so many parts of the country has been so great for us.”

It's a well-rehearsed notion that California doesn't have the historical pedigree of colder (and decidedly more northern) states when it comes to the sport. Palm trees, which can be found outside both HP Pavilion and The Honda Center, don't exactly scream ice hockey at first glance. They symbolize the surf and warmth of our temperate climate. However, just because palm trees don't scream ice hockey doesn't mean the community who lives amongst these palm trees aren't screaming for more of the sport. The San Jose Sharks have one of the healthiest and robust figures in the entire League, selling out HP Pavilion on a nightly basis.

And that thirst for professional sports has trickled down to the amateur level as well.

Sharks Ice in San Jose, which is one of the many properties owned by Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, is a testament to that rabid desire for the game of hockey. The complex currently has 35 adult leagues, a number that includes 144 teams of varying skill levels. In fact, the biggest issue for the complex isn't getting people to sign up-- it's finding a place for them when they do.

"We've grown exponentially over the past five years," General Manager of Sharks Ice Jon Gustafson told Fear The Fin. "We're at a point right now where we can't take any more teams due to the simple fact that we just don't have the ice. That's our biggest challenge right now-- finding ice for all of the players."

Sharks Ice has begun to reach out to other cities in order to set up future opportunities to bring rinks to other communities across the Bay Area, utilizing grassroot campaigns in order to build the sport. When Wayne Gretzky came to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 it set off a chain of events many have called the "Gretzky Effect", where the opportunity to see the sport's greatest player in person drew massive amounts of interest from individuals previously uninterested in the game of hockey. Now, with all of those individuals having kids of their own and introducing them to the sport, a groundswell of momentum has begun to take root.

San Jose State's successful bid to host the 2011 ACHA Division II National Tournament, which is currently ongoing, is just the first step for a successful Bay Area hockey program. Last season, when winger Sam Cimino scored the game-winning goal to send the Spartans to the 2010 Nationals, the team was faced with an issue. Since the Spartans are a club team, relying on the players and donations from the community for funding, traveling to Ohio to compete in a week long tournament posed a multitude of issues. The cash flow just wasn't there, especially after an already costly season.

The Spartans operate on a $140,000 budget annually, with the school contributing a sum of $6,000-$10,000 depending on the year. Budget cuts to California's public University system across the state hasn't helped the push for more funding, and even though San Jose State allocates 1/6th of their club sports funding to the hockey program due to the fact that it is extremely well-run and successful, there's clearly a large gap between the funds provided to the team from the University versus the amount the team has to raise on their own. Each player pays anywhere from $3,500 to $4,000 to play on the team annually, a large burden for students to bear.

Which is where the community has stepped in. After Comcast Sports Net ran a spot highlighting the Spartans qualification for the 2010 National Tournament, donations came pouring in at a rapid pace.

"After Sam scored [and we got further away from the moment], we all kind of looked at each other and said 'Wow, now we have to come up with $20,000 in three weeks," San Jose State Ice Hockey President Andy Dickerson told Fear The Fin. "After the spot ran during the Sharks game we received $1,100 dollars in the first eleven minutes."

"The constant battle we're always facing is not to get lost in the shuffle since there is so much to do in the Bay Area, as well as the fact that the Sharks play here. The outpouring of support from the community was fantastic. We have some of the best fans in the league, and we just hope that we can continue to get that type of support going forward."

Along with the collegiate level, high school hockey is also a very important stepping stone for players looking to progress their game and get noticed by scouting agencies and teams. Players such as Casey Wellman, a former member of the Junior Sharks who chose to move to Michigan to play high school hockey, and Bay Area native Sena Acolaste, who moved to Edmonton at the age of eight and was signed by the Sharks in March (the first Bay Area native to be signed by the organization), are all examples of talented players who sought out a different avenue other than the Bay Area in order to advance their professional careers in the sport.

However, high school hockey in the Bay Area is about ready to take off as well. And while it will take time to become established as a legitimate place to play for those looking to get a college scholarship to a Division I school, if California hockey has shown us anything over the last decade it is that the growth of the sport is as boundless as it is robust.

Archbishop Mitty, Bellarmine, Valley Christian, and Cardinal Newman all have plans to join a Varsity Tier League this month, competing in their own league with one another throughout the course of a season in order to play for a championship. It is the first time any Bay Area high school hockey team will have an opportunity to do so. Furthermore, ten varsity mixed teams, which include students from various high schools in the area, as well other assorted Junior Varsity teams from a variety of schools will continue to compete over the winter at Sharks Ice.

The opportunity for younger players in the Bay Area is growing alongside the rise of the sport in both the Bay Area and California as a whole. The increasing numbers of leagues, teams, and interest in the sport has increased exponentially since the Sharks came to San Jose in 1991, and more opportunities lay in wait on the horizon for both young and old to learn the sport's intricacies in a hands-on environment. There hasn't been a better time to learn the game than there is right now, and five years down the road, it's likely we'll be saying the same thing.

The lack of ice facilities could become an even more pressing issue of course-- with the economy still recovering from its fall from grace in 2007, and public debt becoming a hot button issue on both the national and local level, the road to build more skating facilities to support the rabid desire for ice time faces a long and uncertain future. It will be an essential step in order to provide even more opportunity to learn the game than the average person has already. And one that will likely determine the rate at which the sport will be able to grow in the coming decade.

However, there's no doubt that these issues aren't necessarily bad ones to have-- the need for expansion is much better than the need for contraction. It speaks volumes about the thirst for the sport in a non-traditional hockey market, and provides a blueprint for other communities across the United States to look at when developing their own programs. With the Spartans hosting Nationals, high school hockey teams on the rise, the Junior Sharks competing in National Tournaments, and the Sharks poised for yet another long playoff run, the groundwork has been laid for even more eyes on the game in 2011.

"We have kids who started by going to [Sharks] games with their parents, then went ice skating at a birthday party, participated in our Sharks & Parks program, played roller hockey at Dave Malley's Rollin' Ice, then graduated to ice hockey," SVSE's Senior Director of Communications Ken Arnold told Fear The Fin. "You're seeing our kids now in Northern California go down and beat teams from Southern California, Canada, Michigan, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. Everything is paying off."

The golden age of hockey in the Bay Area isn't upon us yet.

It's only just beginning.

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