Hockey Melts a Few Cold Shoulders

More American cities warm up to the sport as it catches fire in southern climes

Not so long ago, St. Louis sat on the southwest frontier of the National Hockey League. With the exception of Los Angeles, all the NHL's attempts to incorporate American cities either south or west of the Gateway City failed miserably.

The league's appeal was limited by geography, not to mention the fact that many Americans were uninterested in watching a bunch of Canadians playing a foreign sport. It seemed that the game could only be understood and enjoyed by those who were frequently exposed to it - to those who could find a sheet of ice to play on.

But tonight, a very different NHL begins its 1996-97 regular season. In recent years, it has seen teams in Canadian cities such as Winnipeg and Quebec bid farewell to the great white North in search of more promising markets in Phoenix and Denver. It has seen expansion into cities like Miami and Tampa Bay, Fla; San Jose and Anaheim, Calif., and Dallas, and it has also seen a rise in the number of American players.

So what happened? During the past half decade, ice hockey hit the rest of America. ESPN, ESPN2, and FOX have given the NHL a national television spotlight, while the recent in-line skating craze has let kids in warm-weather cities get a feel for the once ice-bound game.

But more than anything else, fans say one event laid the foundation for the growth of hockey in America: "The 'Miracle on Ice' is the genesis of what US hockey is today," says John Shannon, executive producer of the Canadian Broadcasting Company's "Hockey Night in Canada."

He is referring, of course, to the dramatic victory of the US over the Soviet Union on America's way to a gold medal in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

"To win on national television the way they did was an amazing moment," he adds. "It inspired five-and six-year-old kids ... to say, 'I want to play this game.' "

Sixteen years later, that game's effects are still being felt. Last month, the US defeated Canada to win the inaugural World Cup, formerly known as the Canada Cup. It is the premier event to decide the world's best hockey nation. Ron Wilson, Team USA's coach, says the strides made in 1980 played a crucial part in the America's World Cup success.

"US hockey has taken off since 1980," he says. "It helped get more money spent on the sport in terms of development - this win was a direct result of that 'Miracle on Ice.' "

Mike Eruzione, who scored the game-winning goal against the Soviets in 1980, points to another result of the Olympic win. Comprising college players, the 1980 Olympic team made the NHL sit up and take note.

"After the Olympics, the NHL looked more at the college player - and specifically the American player - as a product," says Mr. Eruzione. "I think we opened a lot of eyes."

As the number of Americans playing hockey has increased, so too has the number of them playing in the NHL. Along with a steady migration of European talent, this influx of quality American players has driven the level of play up. The league, in turn, has become more attractive to fans and the media.

Plus, the arrival of superstar players like Wayne Gretzky, who was traded to Los Angeles in 1988 and is now with the New York Rangers, has made hockey that much easier to sell in the US.

While channels such as ESPN have also helped bring the new hockey gospel to places that haven't seen ice since mammoths roamed the earth, the biggest growth in places like Los Angeles may come from the increasing popularity of roller hockey.

"It's exploding," says Wilson, also the coach of the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks. "Driving around Anaheim, everywhere you go you see kids playing street hockey. You see that and you know that the sport is growing."

Many teams in warm-weather climates have started roller hockey programs to get kids interested in the game (see article, right).

Wilson says he is looking to roller hockey for more than just an increase in his fan base. He expects some future NHL players to learn the game on in-line skates.

"It's not ice hockey, but it's the closest thing to it, and you can translate the skills you learn in roller hockey into ice hockey when you do get a chance to play on real ice," he says.

Eruzione, however, questions whether in-line skills can translate into quality hockey players, but he acknowledges that ice hockey is making progress in warmer climates. "There are hockey leagues in California, Phoenix, Texas, and Florida," he says. "And eventually they'll start producing players. It's just a matter of time."

Shannon agrees that the level of play in the US is on the rise. And although he hopes Canada will atone for its World Cup loss to the US soon, he adds, "In the long run, America will be a leader in hockey in the world ... and that can only help [the sport]."

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