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Hub exclusive: Hockey's foothold in Colorado strengthens as sport continues westward expansion

By Paul Patane, SportsEngine, 09/12/19, 10:45AM MDT

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The state has seen a 28.9% increase in participation at the key 8U level in the last five years, with girls’ hockey and programs such as Learn to Play and Try Hockey for Free fueling the growth.

USA Hockey data show participation at the 8U level in Colorado is up 28.9% over five years ago, a result of efforts by USA Hockey and local organizations. Photo by Cheryl A. Myers, @cherylamyers

USA Hockey data show participation at the 8U level in Colorado is up 28.9% over five years ago, a result of efforts by USA Hockey and local organizations. Photo by Cheryl A. Myers, @cherylamyers

The recent arrival of the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights in Nevada and a soon-to-come Seattle franchise joining the professional league are two indicators that interest in hockey is rapidly expanding in the western United States.

But the fascination is not limited to the sport's highest level.

Recent data reports from USA Hockey show participation numbers for some of the youngest skaters not only remain high but are growing, including in states such as Colorado, where the youth movement has experienced impressive increases and helped solidify hockey’s foothold west of the Mississippi River. 

USA Hockey, the national governing body for the sport, has seen participation numbers across the country steadily increase over a five-year period. There are currently 123,303 participants nationwide in the key 8U category, which is 17,387 more than five years ago — a 16.4% increase. 

In Colorado — which with Texas leads the pack in membership in the Rocky Mountain District — the overall growth of youth hockey has exceeded the national average. The state has 2,880 participants according to USA Hockey’s most recent data, which is up 28.9% over five years ago. The state’s increased participation has been helped by the budding popularity of girls’ hockey, which has a growth rate of 37.3% over the last five years.

For a generation living in Colorado, the desire to play may have come when watching members of the Avalanche hoist the Stanley Cup in 1996 or 2001. For a new cohort of kids, the itch to play may have struck when the University of Denver clinched a Frozen Four appearance in the NCAA’s 2019 Division I men’s hockey tournament.

“What I’ve seen since then, over the last 19 or 20 years, is an absolute boom in not only the numbers, but really the quality (of player),” he added.

While many factors contribute to the increase, one has the particular attention of USA Hockey: retention rates among the youngest players. 

"(Learn to Play) basically supercharged the growth (of participation in youth hockey) — the Avalanche and the NHL are the engine behind all that ... The growth has been phenomenal because we basically lowered the barrier for entry through this program."

— Randy Kanai,
CAHA president

Those organizations, with assistance from the NHL and USA Hockey, have programs in place to help keep athletes and their families engaged and wanting to participate, efforts to increase player safety, greater access to ice time and equipment, and helping make the sport more affordable.

Two of the most successful initiatives are Learn to Play and Try Hockey for Free. 

Through the Learn to Play program (click for more info), developed by the NHL with the league’s players’ association in collaboration with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, youth skaters receive equipment and instruction from certified instructors, including NHL alumni.

Randy Kanai, president of the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association, said Learn to Play has been especially significant in boosting participation numbers.

“It basically supercharged the growth — the Avalanche and the NHL are the engine behind all that,” Kanai said. “The growth has been phenomenal because we basically lowered the barrier for entry through this program.”

Try Hockey for Free started 10 years ago with one rink. This year, the program has 850 host sites and more than 26,000 participants. Photo by Cheryl A. Myers, @cherylamyers

Try Hockey for Free started 10 years ago with one rink. This year, the program has 850 host sites and more than 26,000 participants. Photo by Cheryl A. Myers, @cherylamyers

Try Hockey for Free (click for more info), meanwhile, is a program from USA Hockey and local associations designed for kids between the ages of 5 and 9 who are looking to try hockey for the first time without making a financial or long-term commitment.

“Our let’s Try Hockey for Free, which started 10 years ago with one rink in Denver, will now have 850 host sites between our two dates, and around 26,000 to 27,000 kids trying their first true hockey experience,” Erlenbach said. “We’re removing that barrier of cost and commitment.”

Both initiatives target the key 8-and-under age range and should help keep the participation pipeline flowing by giving kids a chance to invest in the sport before they grow older and likely look to become more specialized in their athletic activities.

“We know and we expect that we’ll have attrition as those kids get older. That’s not to say that we don’t get kids brand new to the sport at 10 years old or 12 years old,” Kanai said. “When we do get those kids, we certainly welcome them to the sport of hockey, but clearly the focus on growth in numbers is at 8U.”

As youth participation numbers increase and more kids continue playing, the level of competition rises in the older age groups and creates a more vibrant hockey scene in the state.

“Colorado hockey is attracting the best athletes in the state,” Bonnett said. “The biggest thing I’ve seen is the growth of Tier 1 has been significant, but also the growth of individual clubs, which has led to better Tier 2 hockey, better recreational hockey and even now high school hockey is emerging as a viable option for a lot of the kids.”

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