The Tip of the Ice Berg: Is there a Hockey Stick in your Future?

By Bob Mock

December 1, 2013

   In The Loop Extended Articles

In the last issue of PS Magazine (Nov/Dec 2013), Jimmie Santee in his editorial (Fighting for a skater, one skater at a time) referred to the incredible growth of women’s ice hockey and its impact on many of the successful figure skating programs in North America.

Mr. Santee’s editorial is right on target in what has become a period of phenomenal growth for hockey at nearly every level. In fact, women’s hockey is merely the tip of a giant ice berg that is affecting the entire ice skating industry! 

Over the past decade, USA Hockey and U.S. Figure Skating have worked well in partnership developing a good relationship that has been beneficial to both organizations. With the formation of STAR (Serving the American Rinks), the organizations agreed to work together to promote skating. A very successful example was the Basic Skills Learn to Skate program where U.S. Figure Skating would be responsible to teach all types of skaters.

Those interested in figure skating would enter the U.S. Figure Skating advanced programs and those interested in hockey would move on to the USA Hockey Learn to Play programs. U.S. Figure Skating would get the majority of the girls and a small percentage of the boys. The USA Hockey would get the boys and a smattering of girls. This arrangement worked quite well, creating good revenue for the coaches, clubs, hockey associations and the rinks operated them. Unfortunately, in recent years the model has changed.

A subtle cultural and business shift has been taking place in America’s ice arenas. While figure skating, recreational skating, and speed skating always had their percentage niche as part of arena programming, the demand for hockey ice time has begun to push these other activities into the shadows of arena scheduling. The balanced model of programming is quickly becoming a relic of the past in many markets. Much of this explosive growth is a result of the USA Hockey-National Hockey League joint efforts to promote hockey at every level and every age through its American development model.

Today, not only the boys, but girls are being attracted to play hockey in ever increasing numbers. Interestingly, the difference is that while we, as the figure skating community, continue to wait patiently with our fingers crossed for a "good Olympic bump" that will bring new young faces into the rinks to figure skate, USA Hockey and the NHL have a plan in motion that will produce long term yearly growth rather than riding the "Olympic Year" roller coaster of the 4 year business cycle.

The extensive marketing campaign by USA Hockey in partnership with the NHL has swept into ice arenas across the nation. Their marketing has been brilliant and it is nearly impossible to walk into a facility anywhere without getting bombarded with excellent posters, banners, videos, and flyers that target males and females of every age group from cradle to grave that promote the fun of ice hockey.

The promotions are so good that it has left many good figure skating programs in the dust. Additionally, as the demand for hockey ice time and lessons continues to grow there is a dramatic change in the culture for figure skating coaches. The squeeze is on as the demand for ice time increases from the needs of a growing hockey population.

In order to survive, many excellent figure skating coaches are now teaching hockey players to power skate and have left the shrinking figure skating field to others. The reality is that the demand for skating lessons is red hot in the hockey market. Pro shop owners have indicated that “…many of the girls coming in to their shops from Learn to Skate classes are walking right past the beautiful figure skating dresses, and are buying full equipment for hockey instead!"

Hockey power skating lessons are now seen on many figure skating sessions, even in the best programs across the country. What was once unthinkable is quickly becoming the norm and their numbers are helping to keep the figure skating ice profitable for the rinks to run. There are now skaters in full hockey equipment, including sticks, on figure skating sessions in major markets. Even the talk in the arena stands among the parents has shifted from Lutz jumps and the International Judging System to the college scholarships available for hockey players.

NHL franchises are building and buying existing facilities and educating arena managers how to maximize profits with little concern for public sessions or recreational skating. Some NHL franchises are giving away free full equipment and lessons to thousands of young children. The balance of programming where there was activity for every type of skating is quickly vanishing.  Every rink customer is being targeted as a potential participant or a fan of ice hockey.

While USA Hockey should be congratulated for its brilliant long term planning and excellent success as it continues to capture more and more of the skating market, one has to wonder what happened to the era of co-operation and joint promotion? 

So, as we watch the Sochi Winter Olympics hoping that the American public will once again fall in love with our sport, it is time for skating community (The Ice Skating Institute, U.S. Figure Skating, and the Professional Skaters Association) to stop treading water and paddling in circles, while the USA Hockey cruise liner continues to pick up passengers for a lifetime experience on ice. It is time to learn from the success of USA Hockey and become proactive by working together in partnership and co-operation on a long term plan for success with all of the ice sports involved. It is time to promote, promote, promote. ...and it really is time to get our heads out of the ice shavings before everyone is carrying a hockey stick on our figure skating sessions!