Best Youth Hockey Cities In The USA
Youth hockey in the United States is becoming more and more popular, with more participants each year; this is attributed to having more teams added to the National Hockey League (NHL) in more American cities. However, if a student wants to increase their chances of making it to the professional level, some cities will be better to pursue hockey in than others.
Generally, any US city with a professional hockey team is best for players to get involved with youth hockey. However, towns near the Canadian border or in northern regions of the US provide the most opportunities for advancement in the sport.
If you or your child’s goal is to make it to the big leagues someday, read on; in this article, we’ll cover some of the best cities for youth hockey that will ensure you have the greatest chance of furthering your hockey career.
Ice hockey is one of the fastest-growing youth sports in the United States. The cities and areas that have seen the most growth are where a professional team is located. The number of youth players is even higher in towns where the local team has previously won national championships.
For example, in 2019, the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup, which impacted their youth hockey league’s participation. That following season, the number of 8-and-under youth ice hockey players in the city and surrounding area’s leagues increased by 30%.
From 1990 to 2019, ice hockey in America grew by 190% in the youth leagues. Included in this percentage is the number from girls’ youth hockey, which had over 80,000 participants, making the total number of players almost half a million! And since 2014, there have been record-high participation numbers every year, both in girls’ hockey and 8-and-under leagues. (Source: USA Hockey)
Other youth leagues have grown in number too. From 2013 to 2018, the 13-18-year-old bracket increased by 5%.
But with all these steadily growing numbers, which cities and states show the most promise for youth hockey players who want to further their sports career?
When trying to choose the best city for youth hockey, there are a few factors to keep in mind:
- Having a professional team in the NHL located in or near the city means there is usually a boost in youth hockey participation. They also bring in more opportunities for ice rink construction and availability and more general knowledge of the game.
- Winning NHL teams, in particular, can inspire more passion for the game for local impressionable, young children.
- Being in a cold-weather state generally means that there are more opportunities to play ice hockey.
These factors generally make up why a city has more or less growth and a substantial number of players in youth hockey programs.
Before we get into our list of cities with the best youth hockey leagues, it’s worth noting the best states that produce NHL players.
In the 2019-2020 season, 30 of the 50 states in the US had at least one player represented in the NHL. The top 10 states with the most players represented are:
|State||Number of NHL Players from the State|
As you can see from this list, there is a clear correlation between states located in the north (primarily in the northeast) and the number of players representing the region. States closest to the Canadian border have produced more NHL participants than those further away, like California.
Additionally, nine of these ten states also have at least one professional hockey team currently in the NHL. Wisconsin is the only state that does not have a team represented in the league; however, it does have a team affiliated with the American Hockey League (AHL): the Milwaukee Admirals.
There are a few powerhouse hockey cities—many located in the states listed above—that are best for improving your shot at the NHL or getting involved with a passionate and competitive youth hockey league.
However, there has been a rise in “non-traditional cities” hosting youth leagues, which have increased student participation and are also worth considering.
Boston, or “Bean Town,” can be considered one of the hockey world’s epicenters in the US. It’s perfectly located in the northeast, with cold weather and a long history of producing great players who go on to professional hockey careers in numerous countries worldwide.
With over 55,000 participants in 2018-19, Boston had one of the nation’s highest youth hockey player numbers. Boston saw an increase of around 3% in 8-and-under hockey participation, a 7.6% increase for adult players, and a 4% increase for women’s players.
Youth hockey in Boston also includes a minor hockey league called the Metropolitan Boston Hockey League. Established in 1975, this league has been a feeder league for high schools and major junior hockey leagues in the area for a long time.
This league has a few teams in the Boston area and in the surrounding states. It has produced some great talent that eventually goes on to play at the NCAA level and sometimes beyond.
Fun Fact: Boston has over 150 sheets of ice in the city used by youth leagues!
Coupled with the Boston Bruins, a team that has seen on-ice success and outstanding attendance records, there are plenty of opportunities for younger generations of players to find places to watch older or professional players.
Eight universities boast Division I Men’s programs within the city limits and surrounding areas; there are also six Division I Women’s programs, so both boys and girls can watch future professional players before they make it to the big leagues. From these programs, over 200 players have gone professional.
The Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, are widely considered the hotbed of hockey in the US. The entire state of Minnesota is hockey-crazy, and the Twin Cities is at the epicenter; this is because the region is home to many indoor and outdoor rinks. Plus, with the weather in the late fall and winter months freezing any body of water to a solid block of ice, you will almost always find a game going on here.
The history of ice hockey in Minneapolis began in the 19th century, with the University of Minnesota creating a team and scheduling minor league teams traveling to and from Canada, going through the city. From there, the Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association was formed in 1926, with Minneapolis represented in the new league.
From 2014 to 2019, youth participation increased by 4.5% overall to 54,000 total participants. Among those players, an increase to over 9,200 girls participating showed an increase of almost 10% during this period.
Note: Not counted in this number is the number of athletes playing in public and private high schools across the state, including those in the Twin Cities (approximately 6,500 players).
One big reason for the growth of youth hockey participation is the feeling of community within the league. Many of the players are on the same teams from youth hockey in high school, so they get to know each other very well, and the parents get close.
Also, in the Twin Cities area is the Minnesota Wild of the NHL. While the team has seen a slight decline in ticket sales and attendance, they are still a great group to watch play. Along with the Wild is the University of Minnesota’s Men’s and Women’s ice hockey teams, which are among the most popular in the nation.
Finally, the count of ice sheets is 163 within the city limits, which allows for a large number of participants in youth leagues.
Seattle is on the rise in terms of participation in youth hockey leagues. While they were just awarded an NHL team, the Seattle Kraken will not start their inaugural season until 2021. But, that does not take away from the sheer numbers of young hockey participants.
While you might think that youth ice hockey in Seattle is relatively new, ice hockey in the city goes back a lot further. Ice hockey in Seattle actually predates the NHL, with the Seattle Metropolitans winning the Stanley Cup of the Pacific Coast Hockey League in 1917, the year before the NHL was born.
From there, it was a lot of starting and stopping of teams and leagues until the Seattle Breakers (now Thunderbirds) became a staple in the city as the team’s representative in the Western Hockey League, a major junior hockey league. But in 2021, the Seattle Kraken will be the first professional hockey team in the city since the Seattle Totems in the 1960s.
One particular reason Seattle might be seeing an increase in youth hockey participants is the constant presence of major junior hockey with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Major junior hockey is just a step below collegiate hockey. It is an excellent way for players to get noticed by colleges and other professional leagues.
Overall, there are just under 3,000 total participants in the Seattle area, which might pale in comparison to cities like Boston or New York City. However, those numbers are still higher than four other cities that have NHL teams in their regions.
Along with the participants, there are 16 total sheets of ice in the city, which again is a smaller number. Still, with the Kraken addition, there is undoubtedly going to be an increase.
The Nashville Predators are among the most popular teams in the NHL in terms of the number of fans that show up per game. Over the last three seasons, they have seen an increase in attendance every year.
The beginnings of youth ice hockey in Nashville start with the Nashville Youth Hockey League’s formation in 1964. The city also hosted a minor league hockey team, the Nashville Knights, from 1989 to 1996, but have not had a team since then, minus, of course, the Predators.
With the rise in popularity of the Predators, there has been a massive boom in youth hockey in Nashville. From 2014-19, there has been an increase of 36.6% in total participation. Higher age brackets, such as the 15 to 18-year-olds, have also increased their involvement in the sport for the past six years.
Nashville has been increasing the number of ice facilities over the past few years, with the Predators and their owners leading the way.
Sean Henry, the Predators’ CEO, has started the construction of a brand new ice facility within the city that will mirror the already busy Ford Ice Center. The new facility will be in the Bellevue region of Nashville and is expected to add another two to three sheets of ice to the growing number in the city.
Perhaps the most unusual city in this list of places for youth hockey is Washington, DC. Located in-between Virginia and Maryland, DC is not exactly in the hotbed of hockey locations; it’s far from the Canadian border and does not necessarily have the coldest weather in the nation, two huge factors in determining participation numbers in youth hockey.
But what DC lacks in weather and location, they make up for in passion. The Capitals are among the most popular hockey teams in the nation, and the team has led a charge in creating more opportunities for younger people to get into the sport.
In fact, in 2006, the Washington Capitals constructed the MedStar Capitals Iceplex, which gave the area a commonplace to skate and have youth leagues. This brought youth participation numbers through the roof.
From 2014 to 2019, the area saw an increase of almost 20% in participation to over 22,000 total participants by 2019. However, it is not just the boys and girls in the youth leagues that have increased in numbers; the adult leagues have increased in participants by 8.7% over the same span.
This increase can directly be attributed to how the Capitals have invested back into the community and how the city has responded in both the youth leagues and in the Capitals games’ attendance, where over 18,000 fans routinely show up.
Participation in youth ice hockey is growing in southern California quicker than the facilities can keep up. That is what Craig Johnson, the Director of the Junior Ducks program in Anaheim, has been saying for the past few years, but finally, there may be a solution on the rise.
Recently constructed is a 280,000-square foot facility that houses four ice sheets near the home of the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks and other leagues in the area will use it as a practice facility.
Anaheim is a unique case versus the others that we have looked at so far:
- For one, it is located in southern California, which means there is plenty of sunshine and warm weather that usually drive down participation in ice hockey leagues.
- Along with that, the Ducks have not been producing great attendance numbers over the past three years, with a decrease of about 5% over that time frame.
- Also, there is no Division I program nearby to help drive youth participation.
However, youth programs have still seen an increase of 27.4% in participation from 2014 to 2019, one of the nation’s highest increases. The Ducks are one reason this is the case, with the Los Angeles Kings and a minor league team being close-by, giving fans a reason to show up.
For example, the Lady Ducks program, a league of girls’ hockey affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks, has seen the number of teams increase from 3 to 11 over the past few years. The number of participants has also gone up from around 50 to over 180 in the same period. The new facility’s construction guarantees that those leagues and others will have space to practice and play.
Like Anaheim, Las Vegas is also a peculiar choice for youth hockey; it’s logical to assume that there should not be any ice hockey appeal here because it’s located in the desert with few surroundings. However, with the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights back in 2017, youth participation has been rising ever since.
The largest percentage of youth hockey growth belongs to this city, with an increase of 86.4% in participation over the past five years. 8-and-under leagues have seen participation grow by 125%. (These significant percentages might have something to do with the low frequency of hockey events before the Golden Knights.)
In total, between 2018 and 2019, there were just over 2,250 youth hockey league participants. That is a small number compared to what we have seen in other cities with NHL teams.
However, two more facilities will be constructed to increase the number of ice sheets in the city by four; this includes a new facility for a nearby minor league hockey team that has only been working with two ice sheets.
The following cities in this list have actually seen a decline in youth hockey participation. However, they are still worth checking out if you prefer not to play in a highly competitive environment.
The history of Buffalo ice hockey begins with the University of Buffalo’s team formation in 1895. This team initially played a bunch of neighborhood teams from nearby schools. Still, it was not until the Buffalo Hockey Association’s founding that more structured hockey leagues began to form in the city.
The college had an on-and-off team for the better part of the next 50 years, with 1962 being the next time a more permanent team was put into place. The team was designated as a club team, but by 1969, they finally received financial support from the university and became a varsity team at the Division II level—at least until 1987.
Outside of the University of Buffalo, much of the history of ice hockey in the city comes from the numerous lakes and ponds that freeze over every winter and create spaces for people to go out and play. Along with that, in the 1970s, there was a significant increase in the number of ice rinks built in and around the city that provided spaces for players to play in leagues.
The city on the lakes, Buffalo, is a significant center for hockey but has slightly declined in youth hockey participation over the past few years. This can be attributed to the poor performance from the Buffalo Sabers in the NHL, which has seen their fan attendance decrease over the past two seasons by 5%.
Buffalo fans are mad about their team, and being out of the playoffs the past nine seasons has not helped the numbers in terms of their youth hockey leagues. Overall, the leagues are down around 3%, to just over 15,000 participants.
While that percentage drop might be concerning, there is the fact that the overall number of participants is well above average in the nation. Along with that, girls’ youth hockey had seen an increase of nearly 5% from 2018 to 2019. There is also no shortage of ice, with almost 30 sheets available for those who want to play.
Youth hockey has been around in Illinois since the late 1960s, when leagues began sprouting up in Illinois neighborhoods like Lake Forest, Deerfield, Oak Park, Wilmette, Northbrook, and Chicago. Those early days featured “neighborhood” teams that competed against one another on outdoor rinks. Indoor rinks for youth leagues were not constructed or used until the late 1970s.
In 1975, the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI) was formally constructed, which allowed for tremendous growth in Chicago. Initially, there were around 2,500 participants in those early days, with increasing numbers ever since.
(Source: Chicago History)
Over the past 20 years, Chicago has seen quite a turnaround in their Blackhawks games’ attendance rates. Just 14 years ago, the team was barely getting over 50% capacity for their games, but now the NHL team averages over 21,000 fans each game.
While the NHL team has seen an increase in attendance, it has not necessarily translated to youth hockey participation.
Girl’s ice hockey has seen a rise of almost 4% since 2014, but both the boys’ youth and adult leagues are down in participation. However, this doesn’t mean you still can’t take advantage of the low competition and access to hockey facilities and resources.
The City of Brotherly Love has a particular affinity with the sport of ice hockey. Known for rowdy fans in all their sports, Philadelphia provides a little haven for those wanting to get into the youth side of ice hockey.
With around six facilities in or around the city, there are plenty of opportunities for players to get instructions or find leagues to play ice hockey in.
Though there has been a slight decline in participation and the Flyers’ attendance numbers, Philadelphia is still a great place to find quality youth hockey leagues. Students and parents looking for a little less competitive play may also find the leagues a breath of fresh air.
One of the biggest calling cards for the city of Philadelphia’s youth hockey participants is the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. Across the various rinks and facilities in the city, on January 6th, every year, there is a celebration of Ed Snider.
Snider was instrumental in bringing along youth hockey to the town. Along with that, Snider helped push for more united communities to come around the sport of ice hockey.
Youth hockey in America has been rising lately, with participation numbers growing in traditional and non-traditional hockey cities across the nation.
Finding the best city for youth hockey usually involves traveling north towards the Canadian border; the colder the weather, the better the chance is of finding good youth ice hockey leagues that can turn out to be great avenues for players to make it to the NHL.
There are exceptions to this rule of cold weather equaling better hockey with cities like Las Vegas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, seeing player participation increase over the years.
However, finding the best cities for youth hockey can also mean recognizing the towns that provide the most growth opportunities for young players. With more sheets of ice and facilities, there are more chances for players to find practice time and instructors who can guide them on how to play the game properly.