As the Ducks most recently celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary with irreverent fanfare and an arsenal of throwbacks, including past players, personnel and perhaps most special to parts of the fanbase of a certain age - a sub selection of castmates from the original Mighty Ducks movie- I also celebrated an anniversary: my 20th year playing a sport that I love. I owe those movies a great thanks for introducing it to me in the first place.
It made me think. How lucky was I to be exposed to that sort of positive reflection of the sport on such a large scale so as to encourage me to play the sport at a (relatively speaking for a non-traditional hockey country) young age. Don’t get me wrong- hockey is becoming increasingly more popular without the help of Hollywood or certain celebrity fandom (although that does help) and it can now be said that 90% of our writing staff now play the game, albeit at different levels of experience. Our very own George most recently took the plunge and wrote about his experience here.
But George lives in California, near a team playing in the NHL, where there are (now) well established programs to help someone wishing to learn the sport a chance to do so. He, along with countless others, probably learned of this from following the Ducks who are on TV in the local area. Their games are covered in the media. I can assume taking up a sport with televised support must be sometimes almost unavoidable. [Editor’s note: Here in SoCal, baseball and football are the most established, but hockey is growing!]
I sit at home in New Zealand, and when I switch on the news I get sports highlights dominated by Rugby, Cricket, Netball, Rugby League, and (this annoys me quite possibly the most) the NBA. Why the NBA you ask? Because Steven Adams plays for the Oklahoma Thunder and is apparently quite good. We love a local superhero sports legend. In fact the only time that hockey makes the local news here is when something overtly violent happens or somebody wins the Stanley Cup. That is it.
As I watch those NBA highlights and hear my neighbour’s kid bang his basketball off my mancave roof as he shoots hoops next door, or hear a workmate tell of sending his kid down to Christchurch for a Steven Adams approved development camp, I can’t help but wonder: would at least some of these kids be getting into hockey if they had at least somehow heard of it?
I know the two sports are in no way comparable in terms of expense and barrier to entry, but I would like to think (massive bias here) that one is by far way more exciting to both watch and play.
In 2018-2019 the NHL had over four hundred players from Canada, almost three hundred from the USA, ninety seven from Sweden, thirty nine from Russia, forty nine from Finland, forty from the Czech Republic, thirteen from Switzerland, eleven from Slovakia and various other European nations represented by single digit amounts. Nathan Walker was the only non-traditional hockey country native; representing Australia.
The IIHF current survey of players has Canada leading the way with 637,000 registered players, the USA are a close second with 562,145, Russia are a distant third with 110,624. New Zealand has 1,330 registered players, which is actually pretty good considering we only have a population of four and a half million people. Ironically, I am not one of them because I don’t play ice anymore due to not being near a rink. Australia has 4,465 registered players, making Nathan Walker’s story all the more special. But Walker is an anomaly in a tide of statistics pointing toward hockey being dominated worldwide by North American super powers and Scandinavian success stories with a sprinkling of Eastern Europe.
At this point I wanted to include historical numbers to paint the picture of how the number of registered players globally has been slowly trending downward ever since the last film in the Mighty Ducks franchise was released in 1996. I started writing this a month ago and have been looking everywhere to find some sort of historical data to help portray this but try as I might I could find nothing past a few years ago. The IIHF did not respond to my media request for numbers either. I tried.
I think you get the point though. Sure the NHL is moving ahead with what it can to expand into China and it was very interesting to see the amount of players to join the newest KHL club, the Kunlun Red Star this off-season, but I believe more needs to be done to capture the imaginations of the kids.
The age of the internet and social media may mean that youngsters are more able to be exposed to the sport than ever before and may account for the Nathan Walkers and Liam Kirks of today - but as a fan of the game and not being of a traditional hockey nation; I would love to see some sort of international passion injected back into the sport. I want to see my nieces and nephews get as excited about a sport as I did when I was their age because I saw a movie that made me want to believe in the dream of some underdog youngsters trying to learn a game that encouraged both skill and teamwork to succeed.
I think its time for another Disney Hockey movie.