Once the leader, Michigan now ranks 4th in youth hockey numbers
Michigan is no longer No. 1.
The Great Lakes State, which has long held the distinction of having the most registered hockey players in the country, now ranks fourth behind Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York, according to USA Hockey’s 2017-18 final registration report.
The loss in USA Hockey’s state affiliate, the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association, has come at the Youth levels, which has lost more than 40 percent of its players – 18,046 – since 2000-01, according to USA Hockey’s Final Registration Reports over the years.
However, Youth numbers are up nationally over the same period: USA Hockey has 16,019 more Youth players than it did in 2000-01.
Both USA Hockey and MAHA suffered huge losses during the first decade of this century: From 2000-01 to 2009-10, USA Hockey lost 31,183 Youth players while 12,359 skated away from MAHA.
But then the organizations went in different directions.
While MAHA slowed its rate of loss, it still has 5,944 fewer Youth players than it had in 2011-12. In contrast, USA Hockey has added 31,629 more Youth players since then.
MAHA President George Atkinson cites a lower birth rate in Michigan since 2008. Plus, he says, USA Hockey’s numbers have been boosted by a “more rapid growth in emerging markets, California, (the) Southeast U.S., and Illinois, who has been on quite a Stanley Cup run in recent times.” The Chicago Blackhawks won Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
An obvious line of demarcation is 2010-11 and 2011-12, when MAHA issued cross-ice mandates for 6U-Mites in the first season and 8U-Mites in the second. That gave players in those age groups limited opportunities to play on full ice because research had shown that players of that age ultimately develop more skill by playing on smaller areas.
Here in Michigan, of course, that spawned the creation of the inaugural Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) state ice hockey affiliate, AAU Hockey Michigan, which allows Mites and Mini-Mites to play full-ice hockey.
Atkinson says that issue has been a minor factor at best.
“You have to look at more than the number. Our 8U numbers have been very consistent since 2012 (with) about 8,000 per season. No great growth, but no downturn either,” he wrote in an email. “I know there are some that don’t register with us at 8U anymore, but our research shows that is only a few hundred a year, and most come back as Squirts.”
But what about the older age levels?
“I don’t get it as to why (MAHA’s numbers) continue to fall across the board,” said AAU Michigan founder Keith Kloock, who is now the newsletter editor and national hockey director for the AAU. “… I think it’s probably just the micromanagement.”
Kloock is talking about the perception/belief of many in the Michigan Youth hockey community that USA Hockey/MAHA rigidly dictates its terms to associations, families and players with no flexibility.
USA Hockey defended itself against that charge.
“Our board has always been focused on putting forth the best process for kids coming up across the sport,” said Dave Fischer, USA Hockey Senior Communications Director. “We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to find the best way to do that. At the end of the day, our people feel that this is the best way.
“It’s a free country. People can choose to try something different,” Fischer continued. “But I know our board stands by their decisions on growing the sport and allowing it to flourish and grow.”
AAU Hockey Michigan Director Lee Shifflett has a specific issue with MAHA.
“I think that the cost has gone up, and MAHA has not done a good job of keeping the cost under control,” he said.
In recent years, MAHA has sponsored programs that provided free equipment to associations and to those new to hockey.
Atkinson says it is far more difficult to get kids to play hockey now.
“It is a lot more work nowadays to get kids interested in playing at the local level. Associations really need to work at it,” he wrote. “The birth rate has been down in Michigan, too, since 2008, and the change in focus on more single sport participation makes it harder for associations to get and retain kids.”