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Golden Knights spark ‘unprecedented’ youth hockey surge

James Halvorson, choral director at Shadow Ridge High School, grew up going to Minnesota North Stars games before moving to Las Vegas.

The Golden Knights gave him a reason to invest in the NHL again when they started playing in 2017. His son Larry was soon along for the ride.

Roused by the team’s immediate success and his favorite player, defenseman Nate Schmidt, Larry wound up at the Knights’ “Learn to Skate” lessons. He was in love with hockey before long. Larry, now 14, is still playing years later with the Las Vegas Storm hockey program’s high school varsity team.

“The Knights were inspiring, and we had taken (him) through every other sport you could do out here in Vegas, and nothing ever stuck,” James Halvorson said. “He got a stick in his hands and … just fell in love with it. He was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

There are similar stories across the Las Vegas Valley. The Knights, five years into their existence, have stirred children and their parents to give the sport a try for the first time. Hockey participation has exploded locally as a result, even as participation numbers across the country decline.

“The interest because of the Vegas Golden Knights’ instant success has led to unprecedented numbers,” said Darren Eliot, the Knights’ senior vice president of hockey programming and facilities operations. “You come around that 4:30 to 5 o’clock time (when our programs are going), you feel the energy in the building just explode.”

‘Crazy’ surge

Youth hockey wasn’t a major part of the local sports scene before the Knights arrived.

More than 60 percent of Nevada’s 1,382 hockey players were 19 or older the year before the team started playing, according to USA Hockey. The numbers have shifted dramatically since.

There were 5,342 registered hockey players in Nevada this past season, and 1,527 were 19 or older. The number of 10-and-under players has gone from 221 to 1,639 in five years.

“That obviously goes a lot to the Golden Knights being there,” said Katie Holmgren, USA Hockey’s director of program services. “From the time they arrived, they had a heavy focus on growing youth hockey in the area.”

Interest spiked so fast that the Knights helped build another rink in Henderson, Lifeguard Arena, that opened November 2020. More facilities will be needed to keep up with demand.

“It’s crazy,” said Adam Miller, City National Arena’s hockey director and the coach of Faith Lutheran’s boys varsity team. “Who would’ve thought, right? When the Knights came in, you knew we’d grow. But to grow like this, it just shows the impact the Knights have had.”

The rapid rise is even more impressive given the context around it. Participation in the Pacific District — defined by USA Hockey as Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — is down 466 players outside of Nevada. Hockey across the country has dropped 7,746 players in that time.

“I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a city with this much hockey growth,” said Ashley Barrile, coach of the Sin City Rattlers 14u travel team. “I talk to some of the parents that are like, ‘Oh, no, I knew nothing about hockey.’ And now they have two, three, sometimes even four kids all playing hockey in the valley, and everyone loving it. It’s really incredible to watch.”

The build

Much of the foundation for the Knights’ youth hockey success was laid by Misha Donskov, once their director of hockey operations but now an assistant coach for the NHL club.

Eliot joined midway through the team’s second season in February 2019 and added to Donskov’s work. Those two and Andrew Stewart, senior director of facility operations and programming, built a path for kids getting involved in the sport that is still being added on today.

It starts with the “Learn to Skate” program that teaches students of all ages how to move across the ice through eight weeks of lessons. Then, for those ages 5 to 9, they can graduate to the NHL’s “Learn to Play” curriculum for eight weeks and get a set of hockey equipment. The “Lil’ Knights” program is next to build skills, and afterward players are ready for the organization’s house league.

There are 8U, 10U, 12U, 14U and high school divisions at City National Arena and Lifeguard Arena. Miller said there were 92 house league players when Eliot arrived. He said the Knights had 757 in their latest spring league.

“All of our existing hockey players have continued to play year after year,” Miller said. “I think that’s a credit to the good experience they’re having.”

The options don’t stop at the Knights. Faith Lutheran fields a varsity and junior varsity team, and there are other programs such as the Rattlers, Storm and Las Vegas Ice Warriors.

“I’m someone that grew up playing here in Las Vegas, and it wasn’t like how it is now,” Storm hockey director Kenny Brooks said. “It’s really cool to see for me because that’s why I came back here and decided to start coaching here in Las Vegas again.”

Girls growth

Youth hockey options weren’t plentiful before the Knights arrived. Ones for girls were almost nonexistent.

“There was nothing here,” said Jason Griego, a Knights fan known as “Vegas Wolverine” who has two daughters.

Nevada had 67 female hockey players in 2016-17, and 26 were 20 or older, according to USA Hockey. Those who wanted to play needed to join coed teams.

That’s no longer necessary. The Knights hired Sheri Hudspeth as their director of girls and women’s hockey programming in April 2021 to keep up with the interest they were seeing. There are now 523 registered female players statewide and programs across the area they can play in. The Knights have 10U, 12U and 14U travel teams.

“I really had no idea of how fast it was growing and how many kids were coming in and out of the rink,” Hudspeth said. “I didn’t expect it to be as big as it is here.”

The team wants to be creative to keep that momentum going. The Knights are hosting girls try hockey for free events at 9:10 a.m. July 16 at Lifeguard Arena and 3 p.m. July 17 at City National Arena for those ages 4-10. Equipment will be provided.

The organization also has brought in guests to get girls excited about the game. Manon Rheaume, the first woman to appear in an NHL game when she played in the preseason with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992-93, spoke when she participated in NHL All-Star Weekend. Olympian Megan Bozek is coming to Lifeguard Arena in July to skate.

Hudspeth hopes to expand so the Knights’ girls travel programming one day matches the boys’. They appear to be on the right track.

“Now, to see how happy (my daughters) are with the girls team, it’s phenomenal,” said Griego, who coached 10U in Henderson last season. “That gives them that opportunity to get out there and play with girls their age.”

Next steps

The rise of youth hockey in Nevada is a massive success story for the sport. But that doesn’t mean the growth hasn’t created issues.

The increase in participation means the infrastructure around the game has to keep pace. In some cases, it hasn’t.

“We don’t have enough coaches and refs in the city to keep up with the demand,” said Gina Kielb, the Ice Warriors’ president and program director. “I probably could have had at least one more team at the 14U level (this season). I just don’t have the coaches to support it.”

Eliot said his focus this year is to “train the trainers” and get more qualified coaches and officials. That’s not the only challenge. Scheduling, even with the addition of Lifeguard Arena, is tricky with all the programming the Knights offer. There are only so many sheets of ice and more and more kids wanting to play on them. New rinks are needed.

But the problems are good ones. Hockey was barely a blip on the youth sports’ radar five years ago. The Knights came along and changed everything. They’ve driven kids to discover the game, fall in love with it and expand its reach to a new part of the country.

“I just think it’s been an awesome experience for my son,” Halvorson said. “He says ‘I may not end up being an NHL player, but hockey will be a formative part of my life and my experience.’ And that’s been the greatest thing to see is to see kids at this age have a direction and have a motivation to keep working and be disciplined.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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