By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Seventeen hockey organizations teamed up to unveil a “Declaration of Principles” that NHL players hope will boost the game at all levels, particularly among young children and the parents who decide what sports to have them play.
Going beyond the “Hockey is For Everyone” campaign and a partnership with You Can Play that promotes inclusiveness, the league and NHL Players’ Association took the unconventional step to list eight guiding principles for hockey culture. USA Hockey, the International Ice Hockey Federation and others joined in on the initiative, which earned praise from Pope Francis and garnered optimism from top players about the impact it could make.
“Hopefully it makes more kids want to play the game, more parents maybe push their kids into playing hockey or starting it at a young age,” Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones said. “The things I’ve learned as a kid just growing up playing — discipline, the love and the passion for the game, commitment — these are all things that you need in life outside of hockey, and that’s what the principles are about.”
At a news conference on Wednesday attended by leaders from all over the sport, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman called it an “important day” for hockey. Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, now the league’s vice president of hockey development, spearheaded the process.
The declaration says hockey’s greatest value is in the development of character and life skills, and it also noted there are significant benefits to kids playing multiple sports. Among other things, it said programs should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families “regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.”
Asked to evaluate the initiative, Saint Joseph’s University sports marketing professor Amie Sheridan said she considers it an effort to grow hockey’s footprint and show it’s not a cost-prohibitive sport. Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson said he wanted parents and kids to know that.
“I think hockey these days is a much cheaper sport than what it used to be,” Karlsson said. “I think that that’s something that’s important to get out there — that it doesn’t actually cost you that much if you just want to play for fun.”
Second-hand equipment and ice time aren’t available in some parts of the U.S. like in Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby’s hometown of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, one reason why hockey struggles to attract young players who could more easily pick up a basketball or a soccer ball.
Data from the National Federation of State High School Associations shows high school boys hockey participation has been largely stagnant over the past four years, though USA Hockey reported an increase of about 6.5 percent among all youth players over that time. USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said “enormous progress” has been made, but this is another effort.
“At a time when sport is under pressure from issues ranging from violence to doping to corruption, it is helpful for an organization to set principles that guide their behavior,” University of Oregon marketing professor T. Bettina Cornwell said. “In terms of marketing, and financial support from sponsors, they want to know what sport stands for and this statement goes some distance in describing a culture that should be appealing to a marketer or sponsor.”
The NHL and its teams have already taken stands on topics of inclusion, including the Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars coming out against what they called “discriminatory” state legislation aimed at restricting restrooms for transgender people.
In a letter written to the Archbishop of New York, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the pope was pleased by the initiative and “trusts that this significant gesture will inspire greater appreciation of the pivotal role played by sports and sportsmanship.”
“To be able to hammer these principles — not into the kids, but into the coaches and into the organizations so they bleed it into the kids, that’s what’s going to draw more people into hockey,” New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. It could “draw more parents to say: ‘You know what, I like what they’re doing over there. Maybe they’re not going to play baseball or football and I’m going to get my kids involved in something that’s really going to mean a lot for them in their life.'”
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