For the first time in my life at age five, I laced up the brand new Bauer skates I got for Christmas and took to Mt. View Ice Arena in Vancouver, Wa. This in itself was a phenomenon, since most parents had their kids out on the pitch playing soccer, or signed them up for T-Ball. But not me. I actually cried and begged my mom to sign me up for hockey instead of T-Ball, so after some consideration, she did. I was never the same after that. Hockey took over my life.
I have found that because the sport is so sparse in the Northwest, playing hockey isn't always accessible for those who aren't willing to go the extra mile.
As a child, I always had a team to play on, with a great supporting cast of coaches and parents. And the issue was not with my team, but in the lack of teams to play, and the lack of players to make multiple house teams. I never played in a league with more than four teams, and each team never had more than 16 players. Not only was this a problem during my rec. years, but it also continued through AAA Hockey, high school and now college.
During AAA Hockey, I played for the Portland Junior Hawks. The closest rink we practiced and played our home games at was 35 minutes away, and our other rink was at least an hour away. This long commute was one I was willing to make because I loved hockey, but what about beginners who haven’t had the chance to fall in love with the game like I did? I'm lucky to have parents that were willing to spend the time and money to drive me to games and practices, because I know that many other kids couldn't afford it. I could have chosen the soccer field or baseball diamond that were both within walking distance, so i'm blessed (and shocked) that my parents chose the freezing cold ice rink over convenience, just for me.
Most East coast youth teams have enough teams in the region to play a full season without traveling further than an hour away. For games with the Junior Hawks, our closest away game was in Seattle that season, a three and a half hour drive north. After that, it was all Eastern Washington or Western Canada with trips topping out at 15 hours away. And forget about having a comfortable team van or bus; your parents had to drive you the entire way. Don’t have a four-wheel-drive car? Forget about making those Eastern Washington trips, you wont make it over the Mountain pass. Just another small, unknown requirement to playing high-level youth hockey in the North West.
I had graduated middle school and have made my way up to what I thought as the big leagues - high school hockey. At this point, most players go and play juniors and work their way up the ranks, but my parents didn’t want to send me away to live with another family. This is the requirement if you want to make it anywhere in hockey. If you're good, juniors will get you there. Along with living with another family during what can be some of the most influential years of your life, juniors is expensive.
Growing up in the hockey community you see and hear all about the prestigious Minnesota State High School League and dream of playing in something similar. This is what I thought I was doing . . . not so much. I played in the Oregon High School Hockey League (Still the same 45 min commute) for all four years of high school. OHSHL has given me some of my best memories, and they provided the best volunteers every year and have been actively promoting hockey in the Portland-Metro area. However, the hockey was brutal. With the lack of hockey players in the Northwest, I was the only hockey player in my whole school from 1st grade all the way up to senior year. This is the reason why the hockey wasn’t very good. With four teams in the league and each team made up of 18 players from a certain region, it didn't feel much like a high school program. I remember walking the halls and seeing all the football players hanging out on Fridays together wearing their jerseys all dressed up and Associated Student Body would put on an assembly to get the players and fans pumped for the game.
I had a game that day too, state semi finals, but nobody knew about it. Lack of knowledge about the game increases lack of interest, and this is one of the biggest issues with hockey in the Northwest.
Even today, I still see the lack of hockey in the Northwest, and lack of players is still a big issue as well. I play Club Hockey for Western Washington University, we have 18 skaters and zero goalies. WWU is known for having one of the stronger teams in club hockey over the years and even for us, lack of players is a problem. We have had three different skaters suit up as goalie. Around the league it’s no different. Portland State, Gonzaga and Central have all cancelled on us this season due to lack of players and other issues. We cancelled our trip to Montana due to lack of players. Lack of players is so common in the world of Northwest hockey. Arizona State's club hockey team was able to join the NCAA and become the first NCAA Division One Ice Hockey program on the west coast. This is a major step for hockey on the west coast as this could encourage other Northwest club teams like University of Oregon and University of Washington to want to make that switch to NCAA D1 as well.
So, now that I have laid it all out for you, you're probably wondering, how do we fix this? I don’t think there is any way to fix it immediately, but I think that we are on the right track. The two issues I see with youth hockey are expenses and lack of knowledge of the game and everything surrounding it. Theres not much we can do to fix the expense part, until more leagues and players start to pop up. More leagues and players mean less travel, less travel means more money in your pocket.
What we can change is the lack of knowledge.
This starts at the top with the NHL, then works its way to Major Juniors. With the closest NHL teams in the Northwest being the San Jose Sharks (California) and the Vancouver Canucks (Western Canada) there’s not much those teams can do for the Oregonians and Washingtonians. Seattle and Portland are on the radar for an expansion team in the NHL. If this happens, hockey will begin to flourish in the Northwest. The Northwest is known for embracing its sports teams, and an NHL team would be no different.
After the NHL, the power trickles down to the major junior hockey teams in the Western Hockey League (WHL). There are five WHL teams in the Northwest with my hometown team, the Portland Winterhawks, being the most successful over the past half-decade and the most influential on youth hockey. The Everett Silvertips also make a huge difference in their youth community. These differences being made from small junior teams made up of 15–20 year-olds are changing the way the game is seen by not only youth hockey players but also by parents and other members of the surrounding community. The amount of awareness and money raised by these WHL teams isn't much but it definitely contributes to the overall goal of a hockey-filled Northwest.
USA hockey has a weekend every year where kids are able to come to any rink and try hockey for free. If the Northwest implemented something like this a little more than just once a year, it would help raise awareness of the game immensely.
After this point, the power would trickle down once again, this time to you and I. The hockey community does a great job of spreading the love of the game, and if we continue to do so with the WHL’s help, and hopefully an NHL team within the next 10 years, hockey will be on the map in the Northwest.