It's Hockey Weekend Across America!
This is no ordinary weekend it's Hockey Weekend Across America. Teams, parents, fans and players will all be celebrating the best sport out there in different ways, and we bring as much as we can to you Friday-Monday. Scott Burnside also has Hockey Weekend fever and will be checking in from various locations throughout the United States.
Sunday: Fans celebrate Hockey Weekend!• Photos: Fans checked in with us via Facebook to show us how they celebrated Hockey Weekend Across America:
• 1:45 p.m. ET: Without overstating it, there are a lot of hockey jobs Bob Mancini could have had.
After all, he coached and managed at the major junior hockey level. He had two stints with the Edmonton Oilers, the last as the head of player development. He was also one of the original coaches with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program.
But there was Mancini, on a blustery Sunday morning in downtown Chicago, on a sheet of ice at Millennium Park hoping the rain stayed away while a gaggle of 6-year-olds swirled around him working on hockey drills.
Mancini's sexy new job title is regional manager for USA Hockey's American Development Model. It's a job he didn't even really want to begin with. When Ken Martel, the head of the new national grassroots instruction program, asked Mancini if he was interested in leaving the Oilers to help out with the program, Mancini said no.
But Martel asked Mancini to read the materials outlining what they were planning to do.
"I read through the stuff and it hooked me right away," Mancini said.
Mancini acknowledged he had a couple of not-so-pleasant experiences of his own as a hockey parent with his 8-year-old son, Victor. But he saw the ADM as an innovative way to put fun back into the game, so he took the job. Mancini also showed the materials to his wife, Laura, who is an elementary school teacher. She was incredulous that the program wasn't already in place.
"She said, 'I can't believe you guys don't do this now. This is just common sense,'" Mancini said.
The ADM looks to focus more on skills and less on outcomes and competitiveness. In Chicago, local hockey associations brought players for demonstrations at Millennium Park as part of Hockey Weekend Across America.
One of the many drills performed Sunday: maneuvering fluorescent softballs.
"Try not to slap it," explained one instructor. "Sweep the ball to your partner."
There were intermittent jumping jacks and cheering and lots of movement from one station to the next to keep young minds focused. There was almost a whimsical nature to what ADM is trying to accomplish. One of six regional directors, Mancini described it as trying to mix in a little Disneyland with the traditional aspects of learning to shoot, pass and skate.
"It keeps the kids energized," Mancini said. "They're having fun."
Fun ... what a novel concept. But it hasn't been an easy sell. Mancini admitted he has had to make some compromises with hockey associations that are reluctant to part with the traditional way of working with youth hockey players. But the proof, at least anecdotally, has been overwhelming. Parents repeatedly tell Mancini how much fun their son or daughter is having playing hockey.
"If you make it fun, they get their own passion for the game, and once they get that passion, they're going to get better," said Mancini. "It's the first step in giving the game back to the children."
Sunday at Millennium Park in Chicago: Drills!• 11:30 a.m. ET: The kids show off their skills during various drills at Millennium Park:
Saturday in East Hartford, CT: 'Take it outside'• Rentschler Field: Thousands of fans turned out for Providence Bruins-Connecticut Whale clash Saturday night. It was just one night from the 13-day long Whalers Hockey Fest. High school, collegiate and state club teams all held games on the outdoor rink.
Saturday in Coon Rapids, Minn.: A chance to try ice hockey
• 6:08 p.m. ET: This is ground zero for hockey in America.
From one end of the Cook Ice Arena to the other, children are happily sprawled across the ice as though a neutron bomb went off on this Saturday afternoon outside St. Paul, Minn.
Some of them had never held a hockey stick before.
Some had never been on skates before.
Yet here they were, lining up nervously waiting to be outfitted with helmets and gloves, readying for their first tentative steps toward a relationship with the game.
Sometimes those first steps took them a foot or two onto the ice before the reality of the slippery nature of the surface made itself known.
It didn't matter. Given the smiles and hoots of pleasure from the ice, it was all good.
Cook Ice Arena manager Craig Scott used a botanical image to describe what was happening on this day in Coon Rapids and in arenas like this around the country.
If the game is a plant, you need to dig beneath the soil to ensure that the plant continues to grow upward.
These 17 children and the more than 4,000 that were expected to try hockey for the first time in 202 locations in 48 states represent that sub-surface of the game.
Even in Minnesota where hockey is part of the cultural DNA, one cannot assume that hockey will thrive by sheer osmosis. The game needs to be nurtured and coaxed to maximize its health.
"It's part of the fabric but the world has changed even in Minnesota," Scott said.
When he arrived in Coon Rapids a little more than five years ago, there was already a decline in some age groups in the local minor hockey program.
"It was on the downhill swing at that time," he said.
Working with the local hockey association, Scott has tried to appeal to younger children in the community, and the result was a 40 to 50 percent increase in participation in the mite and introductory program, he said.
If the Saturday program is successful, some of these children will be back for spring and summer hockey camps, and then perhaps for regular minor hockey participation.
Zach and Cody Novak were among the first to be ready for Saturday's session on the ice where the original "Mighty Ducks" movie was filmed.
"Oh yes, they wanted to make sure we got here early enough to get one of these USA Hockey jerseys," mother Dorrie explained pointing to the fancy new jerseys the brothers, five and seven, were sporting.
"The only thing they own is the skates," she explained. And those skates were purchased at a second hand store. But they were anxious to get out on the ice and try the game they see their friends playing and talking about.
"They have lots of friends in hockey that kind of encouraged them to want to get involved in it."
This program includes skates, if needed, provided by the arena and helmets and other gear donated by the local hockey association. And of course, USA Hockey jerseys. The program will give families a chance to explore the game without having to go all in on a full set of equipment. Plus having volunteers helping with the equipment and getting the right size stick and helmet was a bonus given that, for the uninitiated, the process of getting geared up may seem a little daunting.
Six-year-old John Patrou was among the first to arrive at the Coon Rapids rink and he stood for long periods watching a minor hockey game taking place on the ice. John and his parents play floor hockey in the basement of the family home but this would be his first hockey experience on ice.
His father, Mike, lived for a time in Montreal in the 1970s but never got a chance to play minor hockey. His son will.
"If he likes it, we will pursue putting him in a youth program," Mike said.
"I never really got a chance to do it. I played other sports," he said. "But now that we live in Minnesota I wanted to give him a chance to see if he likes it."
• 3 p.m. ET: Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, bundled up in black toque and winter coat, is surveying the 1,800 or so fans who have turned out for his team's first outdoor practice.
Fletcher guesses that half, maybe more, have likely played hockey outdoors themselves this winter. Many have built backyard rinks.
"Part of being a Minnesotan is playing hockey and skating outdoors," Fletcher said.
And as part of Hockey Weekend Across America, the Wild took their practice outside, as coach Todd Richards put his squad through their paces in advance of Sunday's afternoon matinee against Detroit.
The site of the Wild's practice is a beautiful outdoor oval with ice pads in and around the facility. Even though the temperature dipped to below 20 degrees, the break from the monotony of another off-day practice was broken.
Many of the players were sporting Minnesota Wild toques over or under their helmets to keep their ears and heads warm in the biting cold. The puck made that great hollow sound in the crisp air when it clanged off a post or snapped off a stick blade.
This is not to disparage other hockey states, or any other state in general; but there is just something different about Minnesota and its relationship with the game. Fletcher began rhyming off the people he knows through his son's minor hockey program that build and maintain outdoor rinks.
"It's a way for them to reconnect with their own past and a way to connect with our own fans," Fletcher said of his players. "This is quintessential Minnesota."
Saturday: Johnson on hockey in U.S.• 2:38 p.m. ET: E.J. Hradek sits down for an interview with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson, who reflects on his Olympics experience and the growth of hockey in the U.S.
Saturday: Burnside checks in with Dan Sexton• 11:33 a.m. ET: We sometimes refer to hockey as a small town, and on weekends like this, it certainly feels that way. A thread always seems to wind its way through the game, regardless of whether it's chilly Minnesota or warmer climates.
When we called up Apple Valley High School hockey coach Jerry Hayes last week for a piece we're working on about high school star Hudson Fasching, we got to chatting about the Minnesota Wild and their schedule. When Hayes realized the Anaheim Ducks were in town, he asked us to say hello to Dan Sexton, the hard-working Ducks forward who played for Hayes at Apple Valley.
Sexton had a group of family and friends on hand for Friday's loss to Minnesota and Hayes was expecting to be among that group, too.
Playing at Xcel Energy Center has added meaning for Sexton, not just because he's from Minnesota, but it was also the site of his first NHL game. He had been playing for the Ducks' farm team in Manitoba and got a call late one night to join the team in Minnesota.
Sexton took the time to call his family in the Twin Cities area, and then his father called family and friends, including Hayes. They all enjoyed Sexton's NHL debut, not that he recalls much about it.
"That was just a blur. I was so nervous," Sexton said.
Growing up, Sexton was like thousands of youngsters playing both organized and shinny hockey on ponds and backyard rinks. He remembers going to the outdoor rinks and playing games of pick-up even after their minor hockey games had been completed. He also played three years of high school hockey in Apple Valley. For many kids in the state, that is as good as it gets.
"That's what it's all about here in Minnesota," Sexton said.
It's not just the games -- the wins or losses, goals or assists -- but the relationships that hold a special place in Sexton's memories.
"You wouldn't have those things if it wasn't for hockey," he said.
Friday in Minneapolis: Phil Housley comes home• 10:45 p.m. ET: We were sitting in the stands at the Xcel Energy Center on Friday morning of Hockey Weekend Across America, and we found that we had to repeat our questions to Phil Housley.
It's not that the longtime NHL defenseman is hard of hearing. And we're pretty sure it wasn't because the questions were, well, that uninteresting. But Housley was so intently watching Minnesota Wild coach Todd Richards' morning skate, his focus was split.
"We do that drill," Housley said, motioning to the ice.
The "we" Housley was referring to is the Stillwater Ponies high school hockey team he has been coaching since 2004.
And it strikes us that this is all more than a little cyclical. Housley, of course, was one of the most celebrated high school hockey players to come out of Minnesota. Graduating from South St. Paul High School (where he met his wife) to the Buffalo Sabres, Housley forged a formidable NHL career. By the time Housley finally walked away from the game at the end of the 2002-03 season, he had played an astounding 1,495 regular-season games and 85 postseason contests.
Until Mike Modano surpassed him a couple of years ago, Housley was the highest-scoring American in the NHL. For the better part of a decade, he played more NHL games than any other American-born player (Chris Chelios now holds that distinction).
Every year, Housley's name comes up in Hockey Hall of Fame discussion, and he was named to the U.S Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004. Housley, still hungry for the game and for the Stanley Cup that ultimately eluded him, decided along with his family that they would put down their roots in their home state of Minnesota.
"I just thought it was important for them to have stability," Housley said.
He and his wife converted what had been a summer home in the Minneapolis area to a permanent home for their four children. He soon attended a Stillwater High School game because one of his daughters was dating a player on the team. Around the same time, Housley was approached by longtime USA Hockey executive Lou Vairo about helping out as a coach with the U.S. under-18 team at its annual tournament in Switzerland.
"From right there, I fell in love with it," Housley said of coaching.
It was not quite the emotion of being on the ice as a player, but it was close.
While Housley's high school experiences have long past, he certainly understands the importance of the game to Minnesota teenagers.
"Kids are funny. They can be delicate," Housley said. "You have to teach them to be students of the game."
As a coach, Housley has to find the balance between being hard enough on players and getting them to achieve more than they thought they could. And he has to find that balance while understanding they are teenagers, not professionals.
"I think the most important thing I've learned has been patience," Housley said. "I am an easygoing guy, but when I get on the ice, I am very intense. I am a very intense person. Sometimes I'm overexcited, you could say."
While Housley's Stillwater Ponies have yet to make the prestigious Minnesota state hockey tournament that culminates each year with teams playing at the Xcel Energy Center, they seem to be getting there. So, too, it would seem, is Housley.
He was a member of the U.S. coaching staff at the World Junior Championship this season in Buffalo under Keith Allain, who was an assistant coach with the Capitals when Housley briefly played there. Did we mention cyclical? The U.S. followed up its gold medal in 2010 with a bronze medal in Buffalo, the town where Housley first pulled on an NHL jersey.
It's not a stretch to imagine Housley will at some point be the head coach of the U.S. entry in that tournament or ascend to an NHL coaching staff.
For the moment, though, he's happy trying to glean what he can from Richards' morning skate regimen and passing along his considerable experiences to a new generation of Minnesota hockey players.
"It's a very challenging but rewarding role," Housley said.
Friday: Your Hockey Weekend plans!
Nathan Noah Going to see Rod Brind'Amour get his #17 retired to the rafters of the RBC Center! GO CANES!!!
Ben Dobie Just goint to watch a little hockey, that's all!
Tim Emenheiser Got my USA hockey jersey on!
Sean Addison Wishing for an Avalanche victory against the Sharks on Saturday.
Brian Pelletier Going to hawks vs jackets, hawks vs pit... Then season ticket holder skate at the UC on Monday.
Ed Ruitberg Can't make any games, but I'll be wearing various hockey sweaters all weekend!
JC Egresitz Got a new jersey today, playing hockey for a couple hours tomorrow then going to a Hershey Bears hockey game sunday. That's how I celebrate Hockey Weekend Across America. Can't wait to get it going and play some puck. GO CAPS!
Brandon Hovanak Going to the Whale Bowl at the Rent on Saturday, Go Whale!
Ian Schmitz We were supposed to be having a festival at our rink, but since it's suddenly 40s and 50s in NW Iowa, and the fact we're probably the only USA Hockey program without an indoor arena, we had to cancel. Oh, well. I guess that means going to MSU vs. UMD in Mankato -- WOOHOO!
Friday: Hockey's reach in the United States
• 1:15 p.m. ET: The New York Times has an interesting article today on hockey's landscape in the States. Since 1998-99, USA Hockey registration numbers are up in a few warmer-climate states like North Carolina, Florida, Texas and Virigina. Check out the article here.