ANNAPOLIS — Ask youth league directors, rink coordinators, shop owners and anyone associated else with ice hockey why the sport is growing in Maryland and the answer is the same: The Washington Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin.
Although the team fell shortin the second round Stanley Cup playoffs Wednesday, falling to the New York Rangers 2-1 in overtime after holding a 3-1 series lead, ice hockey has steadily grown in the state of Maryland.
The popularity of the game in Maryland directly correlates with the success of the area’s lone NHL team and the presence of one of the game’s megastars.
Since the 2003-2004 season — the season before Caps superstar forward Ovechkin broke onto the National Hockey League scene and won a Calder Trophy, awarded to the rookie of the year — the game has grown by 30 percent in the state of Maryland, according to USA Hockey. There were 7,010 registered adult and youth hockey players in the state during that season, and 9,122 by the 2013-2014 season.
The number of women and girls playing hockey is skyrocketing in the state. There were 610 female players in 2003-2004 and 1,023 at the end of the 2013-2014 season, a 68 percent increase, according to USA Hockey.
Following the league lockout in the 2004-2005 season, Ovechkin, along with fellow star Nicklas Backstrom, has led the Capitals to seven playoff appearances and five Southeast Division titles.
The Russian dynamo Ovechkin has been named an All-Star every season of his NHL career and collected three Hart Memorial Trophies as the league’s Most Valuable Player, and five Maurice Richard trophies as the league’s leading goal scorer — including from this past season.
But the Capitals have experienced troubles in the playoffs during Ovechkin’s tenure. With the loss Wednesday, the team has lost all five Game 7s they have played after holding a 3-1 series lead. The Capitals have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since the 1997-1998 season.
With increasing interest in the game among kids and adults, retail stores and ice rinks around the state are busy. However, in Maryland the rise of hockey, a sport usually associated with New England, the upper Midwest and Canada, is providing benefits and new challenges.
Hockey is an expensive sport, typically costing more than $1,000 to register for one season of youth hockey leagues alone, in addition to pricey equipment.
Ice time in the state is also at a premium, and rinks charge by the hour whether it’s one person or a team using the ice. For example: Ice slots at Rockville Ice Arena range from $350 to $410 per rink per hour. In addition, The Gardens Ice House in Laurel advertises rinks at $365 per hour.
Gary Watkins, the general manager in charge of ice inquiries at the Rockville Ice Arena, said ice time is extremely tight, particularly from the middle of October until the middle of March, peak season for youth hockey.
Watkins said the rink, which features three ice sheets, is booked through March 2016 except for some available summer slots. The demand for ice time is so high that parties must typically call as much as nine to 12 months ahead to book ice time, according to Watkins.
Changing high school schedules can also impact a tight booking timetable.
“We’re limited, we’re limited as to what we can offer,” said Watkins. “The thing that’s really affecting us this coming year now is with the Montgomery County Public Schools being let out 20, 30 minutes later: They’re getting out at 2:40 p.m. That’s caused us to push back and lose some rentals because the kids can’t get here for a 3 o’clock practice.”
Just getting kids involved in the game brings its own challenges.
Bob Weiss, executive director for Montgomery Youth Hockey Association, said hockey is not a sport shown to kids at school or other learning environments in the Maryland area.
It also requires special skills that do not come naturally like in other sports. If kids want to get into hockey, they usually must come to a rink and learn the most basic requirement of skating before getting to any other abilities.
“(Most children) are blessed with the ability to run around and kick a ball,” Weiss said. “You’re not blessed with the ability ice skate. You typically have to go through a rink’s learn-to-skate program.”
This can make recruiting kids to play hockey difficult, Weiss said, as any type of effort to get youths involved comes through a rink.
To get kids involved, his association runs operations like the Hockey Initiation program, which allows parents to bring kids to the rink for $200 and receive and keep free equipment — other than skates — like gloves, pads, hockey pants and helmets, which Weiss said he buys This gives kids and parents an extra incentive to play the game, but Weiss said it still requires the kids to know how to skate in order to make proper use of the equipment.
Some children become infatuated with the Capitals, and others typically gravitate toward the game because of a family member or someone else they know playing it and advocating the sport, which Weiss said creates a legacy of the game being passed down but not necessarily expanding to new people.
“(Most of) the kids that come to play hockey, their parents played hockey,” said Weiss. “It’s a sport that’s more sought out (as opposed to introduction through casual play like basketball and soccer) because of the cost, because of the availability … and because you might have to drive 45 minutes to find an ice rink.”
There are 28 full-size indoor rinks in Maryland, according to Jayson Hron, manager of youth hockey communications for USA Hockey. Minnesota has approximately 200, said Hron. Full-size rinks refer to the size of an NHL rink, which has standard dimensions measuring 200 feet long by 85 feet wide.
With kids and adults flocking to rinks, this creates an obvious problem of a short supply of ice rinks with a higher demand for time.
Weiss noted that the counties have also stopped contributing to rink building. In the 1990s, county-funded structures like the Cabin John Ice Rink in Montgomery County and Herbert Wells Ice Rink in Prince George’s County were the primary options for ice skating.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who grew up playing hockey in Rhode Island and coached his son as a youth in Maryland, said the state is not doing much to fund hockey and it’s up to private individuals to step up to build more rinks.
“That’s an issue, but at this point I think we’re probably going to have to get the private sector and some of the teams to help out because they’re pretty expensive,” said Franchot, a longtime Capitals fan and a member of the state’s Board of Public Works — along with Gov. Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — which approves funding for state construction projects. “No one has come for hockey. You know, I get requests from a lot of the sports, but I have never really had a request for a hockey rink.”
USA Hockey is focusing more on efficient use of ice time to combat the lack of rinks in areas like Maryland with its American Development Model and Serving The American Rinks programs.
The American Development Model helps provide skill-development camps to more young players by coordinating the use of the ice among six teams, and having them play small cross-ice games.
“Facility and ice-time constraints always have an effect in any market,” said Hron. “So while it’s not always easy to build more rinks, the ADM helps use the existing ice more efficiently, providing more ice time and more skill development to players.”
Serving The American Rinks helps ice rinks operate at their best, assisting with everything from business modeling to maintaining good ice quality.
Some hockey fans and parents, like Adam Davidson of Mount Airy, Maryland, have gone about their own way to solve this problem by constructing ice sheets in their backyards. They range from slabs of pavement or wood with frozen water on top, like Davidson’s, to full-size rinks equipped with sideboards.
Davidson, who plays recreational hockey himself and is getting his children involved, agrees the sport is growing in large part due to the success of the Capitals. He said other people he knows are also constructing rinks to gain valuable ice time.
“Before I (built a homemade rink), I didn’t know anybody that did,” said Davidson, who researched the idea on the internet . “Since then a guy on my hockey team did it and my boss did it.”
Howard County Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits said it does not require a permit to build such a structure. Meanwhile, other jurisdictions, like Prince George’s County, do require a permit and a review process, but officials said they get very few such applications .
Drew McIntyre, manager at Total Hockey in Rockville said business has significantly increased over the last decade.
McIntyre said businesses like Total Hockey mainly equip players who, along with their parents, already know they want to play and understand the commitment. They are not necessarily selling the game, just the equipment.
However, the equipment itself causes financial issues. For kids starting out, basic equipment in their size costs between $400 and $500, with top-of-the-line equipment totals reaching more than $1,000, according to McIntyre. Combined with high registration fees, this can make the sport inaccessible for children around the state.
“I’ll forever say that the cost around here is the biggest deterrent,” McIntyre said. “Everyone now recognizes the game and understands it and watches it more and there’s more interest. But the kids that don’t play, I feel, are not playing because of cost.”
The equipment — such as helmets, mouth guards, knee, elbow and shoulder pads, gloves, sticks, pucks, jerseys, long socks, and specially padded pants and undergarments — is a necessity: Hockey is a very physical sport and concussions and other injuries are a concern.
Even though concussions are prevalent, more is being done to monitor and treat them than ever before, according to Dr. Robert Graw, CEO of Righttime Medical Care, an Annapolis-based urgent care center with locations throughout the state.
Righttime Medical has its own head-injury care program called HeadFirst, which works to diagnose, treat and teach about head injuries in sports and everyday life.
Concussion awareness is at an all-time high, with roughly 16,000 head-injury cases expected to come to Righttime this year compared to 11,000 last year, according to Graw. Parents, coaches and referees are now more aware and looking for signs of potential injuries.
About 35 percent of Righttime’s head-injury patients are athletes, said Graw. While he recognizes concussions to be a concern in sports, he said athletes are the most likely to fully recover because they are motivated and are surrounded by a strong support group.
“We are pretty well convinced that of the athletes vs. the non-athletes, that you end up having a better track for recovery because they have a group of people that are watching over them (parents, coaches, trainers, specialists) and a well-motivated patient,” said Graw.
Non-athletes are more likely to ignore symptoms and treatment practices because of work and everyday life, according to Graw.
Franchot acknowledged concussion awareness increasing now compared with when he was more involved in the sport, but he said he was not overly concerned about it when getting his son into hockey.
“We didn’t back then,” said Franchot. “When he (Franchot’s son) got knocked down, down on the ice, he’d come off the ice with a big smile on his face saying ‘Dad did you see that guy crush me?’”
“I’m not opposed to the game because of the physical risk,” Franchot said.
Hockey is expected to continue its climb in Maryland, despite the cost, risk, scant availability of ice time and the Caps’ disappointing postseasons, experts said,
The Washington Capitals are a perennial playoff team with a generational superstar in Ovechkin and will continue to pique the sport’s interest in Maryland.
“I think the Capitals become a big part of the hockey picture, as they are successful,” said Weiss. “In some cases we can track our registration of new kids to the success of the Capitals.”