American NHLers Fight for Spotlight Against Canadians and Europeans

Posted February 24, 2013
Joel Ward handles the puck in a drill during practice.

Joel Ward skates at practice. Photo by Alena Schwarz

In a league dominated by Canadian and European players, Americans are fighting back to make a name for themselves in the NHL. Back in the early 2000’s, a fan would have to be crazy to assume a U.S.-born player would have a better chance of making the NHL than a Winnipeg native.

That’s not the case anymore.

Since 2001, the percentage of American NHLers has increased by a little over 8 percent, according to a Feb. 18 issue of The Hockey News. Not only that, but production from the Americans who make it into the league has gone up as well.

According to the same article, titled “U.S.A. Better than OK,” the total points produced by American players has gone up by roughly 4 percent, or a total of 758 more total points.

Winger Joey Crabb, an Alaskan native, attributes this increase in production to the junior and development national teams in the U.S.

“Since the development of those, it’s really helped out, and our national teams have performed really well,” Crabb said. “I’m sure because of that, the number of players in the league has gone up, and I’m sure the performance has gone up as well.”

One of the best-known American players to come out of one of these development systems is Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. Kane, as of Saturday night, is third in the league in points (23).

While Kane spent a number of years in the Ontario Hockey League, he was also a member of the junior team USA Bobcats when he was 14, and then the Honeybaked AAA team, which is part of the Midwest Elite Hockey Club.

This is much different from 2012, when Madison, Wis. native Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs was the highest American scorer in sixth place. That was even better than in 2011 when no Americans could be found in the list of top ten scorers.

This is a trend that Crabb said hopefully continues, as he sees the popularity of the sport growing, especially in Alaska.

“We’ve got a ton of outdoor rinks for every single school. Middle school, high school and even elementary schools each have their own rinks,” he said. “We’re also getting some new indoor rinks around as well and it’s definitely the biggest sport up there. If you look at the per capita of NHL players to the population, I’d say it’s pretty good. “

More children are starting the game at a younger age as well, thanks to programs put on by the NHL and its players.

Take, for example, Canadian winger Joel Ward, who went to Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Washington, D.C. last Monday. Ward worked with inner-city youth to bring them into the game and teach them some of the basics with the Kids on Ice program.

“We just went over some basic stuff, it was good for the kids to get out there and learn a few drills,” Ward said. “For them it’s just fun, and it gives them a role model to look up to, to see a professional player out on the ice. It’s huge.”

In The Hockey News article, Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said the growth of events and organizations like the one Ward attended in a non-traditional hockey area is a major factor in the increase in American players.

“It’s good for them on and off the ice,” Ward said. “It teaches them to focus and gives them discipline, and it gives them a sense of camaraderie on the team. It’s good for the kids to get out and just try it out, it’s good to them from all different ages too.”

Part of the responsibility for growing the game on U.S. soil, Crabb said, falls onto the NHL as well.

“A lot of it [growing the game in America] hinges on the NHL and how popular that is at the time,” he said. “It really lies in their marketing and the stars that we have in the game right now, but I’d say that’s good. We have a number of really good American stars in the league that are recognizable to kids when they are thinking of sports.”