Can hockey challenge American football and soccer for sports supremacy on the planet?
As far-fetched as that might sound, a couple of researchers at the University of North Texas believe it is a possibility.
John Nauright, professor and chairman of the Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation, has joined forces with Young Hoon Kim, associate professor in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Department.
“I grew up in South Carolina watching hockey in the late 1960s and 1970s on national telecasts,” Nauright said. “I remained a fan of the game, though I did not really have chances to play in those days. When I moved to Canada for my Ph.D. studies there was no option but to be fully engaged in the hockey culture.”
Kim recalled growing up in South Korea watching an older neighbor play the sport. It intrigued him and the memory would drive him later in life.
“I would watch him play and sometimes we’d hit a puck around in his living room, but I wasn’t terribly interested at the time,” Kim said. “It was a good experience, but I forgot about it for 30 years. That was early 1980s, and hockey wasn’t a very popular sport at the time.
“Our town high school was famous nationally for speed skating. One of my best friends, Yoon-man Kim, became the first medalist [silver medal] for [South] Korea in speed skating in the 1992 Winter Olympics at the Albertville, France. At that point, everyone started paying more attention to winter sports.”
Nauright started researching and teaching some of the history of the Canadians in terms of struggles for Quebecois identity and sovereignty, especially as it coalesced around the personality of Maurice Ricard, still the most famous hockey player ever for Montreal. Nauright also spent time watching and studying hockey in Finland and now in Texas.
The duo recently attended the World Hockey Forum in Moscow. As the only presenters from Texas, their panel showcased the Fort Worth-Dallas area as a model for success. This was largely derived from the success of the Dallas Stars, who moved to the city in 1993 from Minnesota and went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1999.
In 1997 hockey was introduced in Texas high schools. The McKinney Independent School District team is the current Texas high school hockey state champion.
“The World Hockey Forum was a fantastic experience and well-organized by the Russian Hockey Federation in association with the International Ice Hockey Federation [IIHF]. My message of strategies for growing hockey in new markets was very well received and is being published by the IIHF on their website and by Moscow State University in English and Russian,” Nauright said. “We are engaged in follow-up sessions at the World Sport Management Association Conference in Lithuania in June.
“I am also working with hockey businesses and clubs in China, Germany, Switzerland and Russia as a result of my contribution to the forum.”
Kim emphasized the Korean perspective, noting a great opportunity on the near horizon.
“There’s still not many teams in Korea, about 20 total at the business and college levels,” he said. “Middle and elementary schools have more, but the promotion of the game is still in the beginning stages.
“However, there is opportunity for Korea. Next year, in 2018, Pyeongchang in South Korea will host the Winter Olympic games in February, and I think that makes it a great time to promote ice hockey in Korea. Any time a country hosts the Olympic games, the local community becomes exposed to sports that they may not have grown up with.”
The North Texas area now has three professional teams – the Dallas Stars, the Allen Americans minor league affiliate of the San Jose Sharks, and the Lone Star Brahmas in Fort Worth.
Nauright said up to 5,000 people attend Americans games at the Allen Event Center. Bring more people into the game, especially youngsters, and that number will only increase, he said.
“There are now some 21 sheets of ice for youth and community play in the DFW area, but there are many more opportunities to grow the game in the state through expanding the footprint of the Stars, through working with the NHL and other hockey organizations and through the schools in Texas,” he said.
Nauright believes much of the expansion work to increase hockey’s popularity can come from people simply learning more about the game. And he suggests doing so in person.
“Hockey is one of the best sports to witness live with tremendous end-to-end action that is hard to capture adequately on television,” he said.
“Everyone sees the NHL as a winter sport, and everyone thinks Texas is too hot for ice hockey,” Kim said. “John and I got to watch a Stars game and saw a lot of kids there who were so excited to watch the game. Seeing that tells me that while Texas is big on football, basketball and baseball, there’s room for hockey, too.”
Kim added that it helps to learn the rules of the game.
“Have you ever played golf? Lots of people know how to play but maybe they didn’t learn about all the rules properly,” he said. “Some long-time players don’t know the rules, but once they learn the rules, the game becomes more exciting.”
Nauright also noted that the history of hockey in Texas began long before the Stars came to town.
“Texas has a long history of hockey with Dallas versus Fort Worth games attracting good audiences in the 1930s and 1940s,” Nauright said. “Indeed, hockey as a professional sport in the state has a longer history than any sport other than baseball, yet most Texans are not aware of that fact.
“With opportunities to watch quality professional hockey in Dallas, Fort Worth and Allen, there are some 100 professional games each year to choose from. With DFW bringing in so many new migrants from Canada, the northern USA and Europe, it is important that local hockey organizations tap into these communities for future support.”
To take their ideas to the next level worldwide, Nauright said, the strategy is to provide academic insight and practical plans for expansion into markets such as China and South Korea. There is also much work to be done with national and international federations and clubs to consult and review programs around the globe.
Kim used soccer’s premier event, the World Cup, as an example of how to grow hockey.
“If we can have a league competition between the different countries, that’s a way to engage the entire world,” he said.
“Since my work with the international association, I’m trying to make connections with Korean ice hockey associations and help foster those relationships through IIHF, including the U.S. and Korea.”
And, of course, young people will play a key role in the sport’s growth.
“Sports face an increasingly competitive marketplace, and the basis for strong support in the future is a player base of youth who understand the sport,” Nauright said. “The key to growing the sport everywhere revolves around quality youth hockey programs that feed into adult programs. The Star Centers [area ice rinks operated by the Dallas Stars] and other facilities provide locations for these around the Metroplex, but the success of programs also relies on quality coaching, volunteers and management.”
Nauright would also like to see the game grow to include more colleges in the south. Allen recently hosted a club game between The University of Texas and Texas A&M University, and club teams from the University of North Texas and Texas Christian University play at the Star Center in Farmers Branch.
“There are suitable arenas already available for hockey, but it will take several universities deciding to develop the sport at the same time. One strategy would be to get schools such as UNT, SMU, TCU, UT-Arlington and/or others to work together for a hockey conference or league,” he said.