For decades, the National Hockey League has been criticized for trying to grow the game in the southern United States, or to hockey purists, places where hockey just “won’t/doesn’t work.” Teams such as the Arizona Coyotes, Florida Panthers, and Carolina Hurricanes are often the targets of such remarks.
And, in some aspects, those critics do have fair points – the Coyotes have been a mess with their finances and have been in hot water before – but it appears that the NHL’s finally reaping what they sowed decades ago by moving the needle of hockey further south than its Canadian origins.
When you think of where people play hockey, you think of Canada and states such as Minnesota, Michigan, New York, and other northeastern states that are hockey hotbeds, and rightfully so. The game’s best often come from these places, so it’s natural to assume that. However, players from untraditional hockey hometowns have popped up in the NHL, and they’re not just depth or low-minute role players: they’re blossoming superstars and already the faces of the league.
Both the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Buffalo Sabres’ Tage Thompson are from Arizona: Matthews from Scottsdale, where he grew up a diehard Coyotes fan, and Thompson from Phoenix. Jason Robertson, who has 66 points for the Dallas Stars and is on pace for a career-best 106 is from California. Slowly but surely, hockey and the NHL is growing in the southern states.
USA Hockey has seen a significant increase in members, too. While their numbers peaked in 2018-19 at 567,908 players and haven’t fully reached that number since, 547,429 members in 2021-2022 is still 100,000 more players than what it was 15 years ago when only 457,038 members were registered.
You can see it in the junior players too: by looking at the United States’ 2023 World Junior Championships roster, there are two players from Scottsdale, Arizona in Red Savage and Cutter Gauthier, and two players from Florida in Gavin Brindley (Estero) and Seamus Casey (Fort Myers). The Coyotes’ reach in the desert is working, and the Panthers’ and Lightning’s success – the Lightning winning back-to-back Stanley cups certainly gives it a boost – has done wonders for the growth of hockey in the sunshine state.
While hockey will always be prominent in the north, its reach in the non-traditional markets of the south and below the Mason-Dixon line is becoming more and more noticeable. While NHL superstars are starting to come from unorthodox places, it’ll become the norm in due time.