'Night and day': Growth of youth ice hockey coinciding with Carolina Hurricanes' success

Michael Perchick Image
Monday, May 22, 2023
Canes success inspires new interest in youth ice hockey
As the Carolina Hurricanes prepare for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, their success is being felt at ice rinks across the Triangle

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As the Carolina Hurricanes prepare for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday night, their success is being felt at rinks across the Triangle.

"No doubt the Hurricanes being on TV, letting the kids see it, a lot of them get to games. So I think that's a lot of excitement. Certainly helps the sport," said Matthew Monahan, a volunteer coach for the Polar Hurricanes House League.

The Canes have made the playoffs five straight seasons, marking the longest stretch since relocating from Hartford. It comes following a nine-year playoff drought, a far fall for a franchise that had made the Stanley Cup twice in four seasons at the beginning of the century, including winning it all in the 2005-2006 season.

"Exploding on the tail end of COVID. We've got the Stadium Series in town. Everything's just culminated," said Chet Ullrich, who serves as Youth Director at Polar Ice.

Ullrich has had a front-row seat to the transformation, starting as a 12U player, bouncing around the country and even overseas to compete.

"It's night and day. It's hard to even compare what it was. It's apples and oranges to today," Ullrich said.

"A lot of what our clientele was back then was people who weren't from here. A lot more of them now - it's a lot of homegrown talent and interest that goes along with it," added Michael Baxter, Vice President of American Sports and Entertainment Centers which runs the Polar Ice locations.

To that point, Baxter noted adult leagues have always had strong support, a result of transplants moving from areas where the sport has been more popular. This newest surge has largely been fueled by younger players, a promising sign for the sticking power of the sport. When Polar Ice took over the youth programs a decade ago, there were fewer than 500 participants; today, that number tops 1,000.

"It's exciting to see because you're growing a hockey culture, not just a landing spot for people that already knew it from elsewhere," Baxter said.

"I think the biggest thing I've seen is when the kids start talking to their friends. When they talk about hockey, they talk about playing, they talk about their involvement. That gets other kids interested," said Monahan.

Removing barriers to access has also helped open the door to more players. The Hurricanes First Goal Program, a partnership between the organization, NHL, and Players' Association, provides equipment and lessons for a significantly reduced rate, while Monahan said older players passing down gear to younger players has also aided in cutting costs.

Monday afternoon, Invisalign Arena in Morrisville, where the Canes practice, was full of players of all ages utilizing both rinks.

"There's a new high school league, and I know a bunch of my buddies who really want to get into it," said Soren Techet, an eighth grader who has been playing for seven years.

The multi-sport athlete is welcoming of the widespread interest in the sport.

"I definitely get a lot out of playing. Getting to know a bunch of people, getting to learn a bunch of life skills," Techet said.

Monahan's son Kyle is entering the sixth grade, and started playing hockey five years ago.

"It's nice to see that hockey's growing, because I felt like hockey was one of the least popular sports and now it's really becoming more popular," said Kyle, who appreciated the teamwork that goes into the sport.

The popularity difference has also been seen at PNC Arena. While it's now known as the "Loudest House in the NHL," the team's attendance struggles were evident prior to their recent run. In 2017-2018, the last season they missed the playoffs, the Canes had the third-lowest average attendance and the worst capacity, at about 71%.

This season, even excluding the sold-out Stadium Series, the Canes average attendance was nearly 95%.

"I've gone to two or three games in the playoffs this year, so that's exciting," Kyle said.