Over the past few years, hockey in the United States has seen substantial growth in both cold weather and non-traditional markets. In fact, enrollment numbers have nearly double since the 1991-1992 season, from just over 230,000 participants in that year to over 550,000 in 2011-12. However, even with this promising growth, hockey still remains a foreign concept in several states. Nestled in America’s Heartland, the state of Iowa is in the midst of an impending hockey boom.
Rarely in any hockey related headlines, Iowa has seen a surge in youth hockey enrollment in recent years, seeing a 317.9% growth from 1990-2010 to an admirable 2,549 participants. While I don’t expect any farmers to sacrifice their crops in favor of building an ice rink in hopes of playing with the ghost of Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the fact is that Iowa residents are seemingly starting to warm up to hockey’s chilling appeal.
One of the longest running and most successful hockey outlets in Iowa has always been the continued existence of the United States Hockey League. Founded in 1947, the USHL is the premier destination for junior hockey players wishing to remain in the United States. Out of its’ 16 total teams scattered throughout the American Midwest, five call the Hawkeye State home, including last season’s USHL Champions, the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Although Canada still produces the highest amount of junior hockey talent, the USHL has still has groomed current NHL talent such as David Backes, Justin Faulk, Sam Gagner, and Joe Pavelski.
While the USHL has given Iowa a solid hockey backbone for many years, it’s hardly had the mass appeal that is needed to garner continued interest amongst the local sport loving community. Luckily for local hockey fans, Iowans will soon have another reason to spend their nights at the rink.
In hopes of pushing hockey’s agenda for growth in Iowa, a big push was made this past season when it was announced that AHL hockey would once again return to the Hawkeye State in form of Minnesota’s minor league affiliate, the Iowa Wild. Heading into their inaugural season, the Wild will look to avoid the fate of the AHL’s Iowa Stars and later Iowa Chops who were never able to get a foothold in the Des Moines community. In order to check the pulse of hockey fever in Iowa’s capital, the Wild’s Director of Communications, Josh Fisher, was kind enough to speak on behalf of the organization.
“The reception has been great,” Fisher said of the Wilds’ integration into the local community. “Season Ticket sales have been very positive. The corporations in town have been open to meeting with us and supportive. The media has jumped on board and covered a lot of the team’s events. There is a lot of good, positive momentum and we are trying to sustain it as we get closer to the season.”
While the Wild’s inaugural season will most likely be remembered for wins and losses, the team will also be looking to make an impact off of the ice as well.
“The Iowa Wild will make a strong effort to connect with the central Iowa community,” Fisher said of the Wild’s planned philanthropic activities. “With that said, the players will be visiting the schools, hospitals, and local community groups. The team will also have a presence in youth hockey, making appearances at practice and integrating themselves with the young teams.”
Even with the Wild’s promising plans to integrate into the local community, it’s hardly a guarantee that the team will flourish in a city where multiple other AHL franchises have failed. However, the team is quick to point out that they have one crucial selling point that previous teams have lacked – location.
“Our proximity to St. Paul and our ownership group with the Minnesota Wild will make a difference,” remarked Fisher when asked why the team will succeed where others have failed. “The previous regimes here were affiliated with teams in Texas and California, making it difficult for fans to follow the players’ careers at a higher level. With the affiliate so close, it will make it easier for them to support us in Des Moines, as well as have easier access to players for call-ups.”
With a sound business model and just a four hour drive away from their successful NHL affiliate, there is reason to believe that AHL hockey may have finally have found a permanent home in the heart of Iowa.
One man who is firmly behind the AHL’s return to Iowa is Florida Panthers’ current backup goaltender Scott Clemmensen. Amazingly, Clemmensen will be the only Iowa native suiting up in the NHL for the upcoming 2013-2014 season.
“It’s good getting the American Hockey League back in there (Iowa),” Clemmsensen said. “Just in terms of growing hockey in Iowa and in Des Moines in particular.”
However, even as hockey’s growth is on an upswing, Clemmensen is still hesitant to declare that the sport will be hitting the front pages of sports pages in Iowa anytime soon.
“Hockey in Iowa is still a little bit of an anomaly,” Clemmesen said of hockey’s place in the minds of Iowans. “It’s very popular among a small group of people and among those people it’s very much their favorite sport.”
When it’s all said and done though, Clemmensen has an optimistic view for hockey’s growth in his home state and hopes that one day his label of being the only Iowa born player in the NHL will be a thing of the past.
“Hockey is still a niche in Iowa, but is it growing? I’d like to think so. A lot of good players are coming out of there. Hopefully we’ll see some of them make the NHL soon,” said Clemmensen.
With the the continued success of the USHL, the return of the AHL, and an increase in junior hockey participation, it isn’t farfetched to think that someday hockey players could be Iowa’s next cash crop.
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