The New York Times has an interesting graphic regarding the growth of hockey in the United States.
This graph from USA Hockey, the governing body of U.S. hockey, shows the growth in registered participants across the United States. These numbers show two interesting characteristics:
Notice the decline in registration in some of the more traditional markets. The New England states show a general decline in registration with U.S. Hockey, with the exception of Maine and Pennsylvania. Michigan and Wisconsin also show declines. The declines in these areas range from 10-50%.
There are more than likely two factors at work here. One is the economy. As the economy has struggled, it is most likely that families have curtailed expenditures for activities such as sports, and hockey is caught in this decline. These areas have been particularly hard hit as the economy has contracted.
Another factor may be the out migration of companies and their employees to other states. Many firms have relocated to the sun belt from the rust belt, and the population decline in these areas has no doubt affected the number of participants in all sports.
Notice however, the growth of registrants in the so called "non-traditional markets". While the above mentioned factors have been negative for the rust belt, they have conversely been beneficial to the south and many of the western states.
The presence of an NHL team has obvious benefits for growth of the sport in areas that would not be considered traditional hockey markets. One can look at the chart and see the growth in the Nashville, Atlanta, and Raleigh markets. Each of these locales has an NHL team, and this has had a positive affect on the number of youth that are now participating in hockey.
An area of surprising growth is in South Carolina. The state does not have an NHL team, but does have two minor league hockey teams, the Columbia Inferno and the Carolina Stingrays, both of the ECHL.
Jeff Cogen, President of the Nashville Predators, has spoken of the need to grow the game in the Nashville market. One of the strategies is to involve more children in the game. Getting youngsters to play will involve their parents in the sport and get them to games. Cogen spoke of needing a "generational turn" for a franchise to be successful. By that, he meant that kids needed to grow up with the game, go off to school, and start in the work force. Those now young adults begin their careers and the majority will become ticket holders- loyal ticket holders.
One can look at this graphic and see that although much maligned, the NHL's strategy of locating franchises in "non-traditional" markets is planting the seeds for the growth of the game. It does take time; it is a slow process. It is a process that will yield long term positive results for the game and its fan base.
The support for a franchise in the "non-traditional" markets requires consistent corporate support; a solid base of individual ticket holders; and a pipeline of future ticket holders. The numbers shown on this graph should be heartening to fans in the south and serve as a resounding rebuttal to the so called "hockey purists" who say that hockey doesn't belong in the sun belt.