Tennessee has been adding a couple hundred youth hockey players each year, and the state’s roster of 3,871 registered players ranks high in the South — with nearly as many players as in Georgia and Alabama combined.
But getting a first experience on ice has been notoriously difficult, and even ardent hockey supporters say the sport isn’t for everyone. So will the recent run for the Stanley Cup, and all the hockey fever it has generated, also trigger a bump in kids playing the sport?
“There will be kids that fall in love with it,” said Feather Webb, of Rutherford County.
“But it’s a commitment,” said Karen McGruder, of Brentwood. “It’s not like getting a puppy.”
Their boys play together, and they watched along with a group of hockey moms during a recent tryout for the competitive Jr. Predators team for 11 and 12-year-olds.
Webb recounted how her son went to his first Predators game at age 2 and was calling out, "My hockey, my hockey!"
"We’re like, 'No. Not happening!' ” Webb said, remembering the reasons she resisted: "The cost, and we live in the South, and you have buy tons of equipment.”
Webb eventually gave in and joined a cadre of competitive hockey parents. They expect to see a surge in local interest after the Predators' success this year, but they also know the sport isn't accessible to everyone.
Multiple mothers said the sport can cost a family $10,000 a year. The time commitment is exacerbated by the limited number of ice rinks in the area, which dictates when teams get access. The scarcity also means greater travel times and costs. (A second arena announced by Metro and the Predators is headed to Bellevue.)
And then there’s the dangers of what eventually becomes a full contact sport.
“Most of us have had a son — and our kids are only 11, maybe 12 — [with] a concussion before,” McGruder said. “We’re dealing with that.”
Yet these parents have also seen barriers fall.
To take the financial edge off for newcomers, the Predators created a starter program that includes six weeks of hockey and a full set of equipment for about $100, a fraction of the normal cost.
“Our job is to eliminate those barriers to entry that have kind of been plaguing hockey for awhile,” said Zach Jackson, hockey manager at Ford Ice Center in Antioch.
And as kids grow, there’s a clear curriculum they can follow to improve in the sport. So it has become easy for families to stay involved.
The Turner family, of Mt. Juliet, said 8-year-old Jackson learned to skate young — since he was 3, Jackson said.
“He played soccer for a year, and that was OK, and he said he wanted to try hockey — and here we are,” added his mom, Amber.
The little skater has also started private lessons with a coach. And by next season, he’ll likely be playing alongside many more hockey first-timers.