A journey into non-traditional hockey markets: the importance of role modelsGROWING THE GAME IN NORWAY. Mats Zuccarello’s success with the New York Rangers has ramped up the interest in the sport in his native country. Photo: Bildbyrån/Michael Erichsen
For those of us that choose to be around this hauntingly beautiful sport, the mere mention of the word can send the mind racing.
In an instant, you remember it all. For a brief moment, you’re a kid again.
You remember the unexpectedly sharp pain when someone helped lace up your skates and tightened them too hard. You remember the feeling of shock (and anger!) when you got hit hard – really hard – for the first time. For just a second, your nostrils are filled with all the various smells of the rink where you played or watched your very first game.
For many, once you’ve been bitten by the hockey bug you can no longer choose to be around it. You simply can’t stay away from it.
For those of us lucky enough to have been born in countries where hockey was – and is – considered something of a national sport, cultivating an attachment to it was by no means difficult. It might not have been cheap enough for everyone to actually play the game but having strong role models like Peter Forsberg, Teemu Selänne, Wayne Gretzky and Sergei Fedorov undoubtedly helped develop interest among the youths of Sweden, Finland, Canada and Russia. Not to mention the geographical proximity to the sport itself in those countries, in the form of plentiful local teams and rinks.
But what about some of the more non-traditional hockey markets?
The ice at Ullevål Stadium ahead of Henke & Zucca Summer Classic.
Photo: Hampus Duvefelt
A LEAN FEW YEARS
Eliteprospects.com caught up with Mats Zuccarello in Oslo, Norway during the outdoor charity game “Henke & Zucca Classic” – an event he co-hosted with teammate Henrik Lundqvist – to get a feel for the state of Norwegian hockey today.
“Well, I am hoping the next great Norwegian player is in the stands for this game”, Zuccarello told EP in a candid response, before admitting that more can be done to grow the sport. “It is important that we dedicate ourselves to the recruitment and development of young players. As a nation we’ve had a lean few years but, to me, the interest has been growing exponentially in last little while. This may be a charity game but as a side-effect I am hoping it can provide a boost in interest towards hockey.”
He might not have said it himself, but the growing interest in hockey among Norwegians is likely a byproduct of the success Zuccarello has had in the NHL. Not only has he surpassed Espen Knutsen as the most successful Norwegian NHL player of all time, he was recently voted “Most popular athlete in Norway” by readers of the nation’s largest online news publication Verdens Gang.
And things certainly seem to be headed in the right direction.
After not having any players chosen in the NHL draft from 2014-16 – not that Zuccarello himself needed to be drafted to make the NHL, mind you – Norway has seen players drafted in both 2017 and 2018; Kristian Røykås Marthinsen and Mathias Emilio Pettersen, respectively.
Nathan Walker – Australian Stanley Cup champ.
Photo: John Crouch/Cal Sport Media/Sipa USA/CSM
THE IMPORTANCE OF ROLE MODELS
The story of Nathan Walker, the first Australian player to ever play in the NHL and consequently the first Australian to ever hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup, helps to further establish how important it is for young hockey players to have strong role models growing up. Even if they can’t always be real humans of flesh and blood.
“Mighty Ducks had a big role in it,” Walker told reporters back in 2014 when asked what inspired him to play hockey. “The movie had a big influence.”
Thanks to his success with the Washington Capitals during the 2017-18 campaign, the 24-year old gained national fame in Australia – even eliciting a congratulatory phone call from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Walker may not have had a countryman he could look up to when he first started playing, but the boys and girls growing up in Australia today now have a hockey player they can look toward and emulate.
UNTAPPED HOCKEY MARKETS
There are several large markets where hockey is still just a tiny blip on the radar. Some of those markets remain barren for hockey due to their climate; the aforementioned Australia and most of the Mediterranean area to name a few, but there are places where there is potential for exponential growth.
When Liam Kirk was drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in the 7th round (189th overall) this summer, he became the first player born and trained in England to be drafted by an NHL team.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a British player with that sort of offensive talent, that all-round package,” Kirks former coach Greg Wood told Yorkshirepost. “Liam’s got that intrinsic motivation that will carry him through. He has the skill-set but, also, that mental toughness he has is what will get him over the line. He will fit in anywhere.”
China is another market that is brimming with potential.
New York Islanders 6th round pick (172nd overall) in 2015, Andong Song, gained national fame when he became the first Chinese-born hockey player to ever be drafted by an NHL team. Something he himself admits adds a burden of expectation:
“I feel pressure [because] everyone knows me and what I’m going to do,” Song told ESPN in 2017. “But it’s also a motivation that helps me determine my NHL dream.”
With the 2022 Winter Olympics taking place in the Chinese capital of Beijing, government officials are already gearing up to field a competitive ice hockey team once the tournament gets going. It is safe to say Song will be in contention to make that roster, perhaps fulfilling another life-long dream in the process.
“My dream has never changed,” Song said. “I want to play for China one day in the Olympics.”
With the emergence of young talent like Walker, Kirk and Song, young players from non-traditional hockey markets finally have someone to look up to. Someone to show them it can be done.
In short – a role model.