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COLUMN

Grass-roots interest in hockey is producing results

Monday, March 1, 2010 - 10:19 am

Without a doubt, many people throughout Fort Wayne were in front of their TVs Sunday afternoon, enthralled by the incredible excitement that was unfolding at the Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. Fort Wayne residents can certainly appreciate a scrappy group of American youngsters shocking the world by nearly knocking off the most talented hockey team on earth.

The fact that the U.S. men's hockey squad eventually lost 3-2 in overtime in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics does not diminish what this group accomplished over the past two weeks.

People in Fort Wayne understand the magnitude of what America just witnessed – because they understand hockey, and they understand how the sport is quickly evolving throughout the country.

Fort Wayne has few peers in this state when it comes to lacing on a pair and having at it on the ice. The people here appreciate – even embrace – the mental, physical and even financial demands that hockey requires of its athletes, families and coaches. However, the cities of Fishers, Zionsville, Carmel, South Bend and those in “the Region” also are developing youth hockey programs that rival Fort Wayne's.

That interest at the grass-roots level is exactly why the U.S. team was able to take Canada to the extreme Sunday.

The American team was composed of young players (the average age was barely 26 years) and more importantly, players from a wide range of geographic areas.

The U.S. players hailed from California to New York and eight other states in between.

Those players are products of collegiate and junior hockey programs all over the northeast and Midwest – places just like Fort Wayne. U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson, an Indianapolis native, can teach area kids that you no longer have to live in Minnesota or Massachusetts to have visions of gold (medals) in your future.

The number of youth hockey leagues in the U.S. is on the rise. Why do you think Canlan Ice Sports Corp. just constructed a $14 million facility here? Much like Spiece Fieldhouse, Canlan will be the hub of youth tournaments for future college, pro and perhaps even one day, a future Olympic hockey player.

Suburbs of the largest cities in the U.S. – even in the southern parts of the country – are dotted with thousands of kids playing in tournaments each weekend. That level of participation is already reaping rewards throughout international play. American teams have recently won world titles in the under-20, under-18 and under-17 divisions.

That youth movement was evident in the makeup of this year's Olympic team. The selection committee broke tradition and did not place a number of veteran players on this team. After not even advancing to the medal round in 2006, why not go young? What did we have to lose – besides more hockey games?

The committee went with youth, hoping to gain experience this year and possibly make a statement in 2014.

I guess Zach Parise had other ideas.

Sixteen of the American players were born after 1982, and just three players on the roster had any previous Olympic experience. So let the message be sent that yes, Canada, Russia, Sweden and the rest of the world, here come the Americans – and we're not leaving anytime soon.

America's future in this sport is now, and it's only going to get brighter.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Tom Davis at tdavis@news-sentinel.com.