Not content with just attracting people to watch and attend St. Louis Blues hockey games, the Blues have developed a new “Hockey STL 2020” initiative designed to help build the sport’s popularity from the ground up.
The Blues are committed to spend $2 million on local youth hockey programs and area rinks in the next five years in an attempt to grow the game of hockey regionally by 70 percent. The Blues joined the NHL in 1967 as an expansion franchise.
“As we head towards our 50th anniversary, I’m quite inspired by what people have created around youth hockey in St. Louis,” said Chris Zimmerman, Blues President and CEO of Business Operations. “It’s fantastic in terms of quality of players, national championships, all of those things. Your grass roots and your youth sports is the feeder that creates the next generation.
“I think the Blues are in a position where we recognize the importance of continuing to provide an environment that attracts more kids to our sport.”
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Local amateur teams based in the St. Louis area have won 11 USA Hockey national titles. There are 10 players in the NHL, includling Blues center Paul Stastny and Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop, Anaheim’s Pat Maroon and Calgary’s Brandon Bollig, who were either born in St. Louis or grew up here.
St. Louis and Scottrade Center have been chosen as one of three finalists to host the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships along with Pittsburgh and Buffalo. An announcement on the host city is expected in December.
Included in the plan are efforts to introduce hockey to 25,000 children each year through local ball hockey programs in schools and community centers, with the hope of adding more than 5,000 new ice hockey players.
“Everything we’re doing is all about creating the next generation of players as well as Blues fans,” said Zimmerman, who hopes to bring many new youngsters to the sport. “That’s actually the greatest focus, Most of the kids will be 5 to 8 years old and it’s important to get them involved and learning to skate and getting a stick in their hands.”
Blues chairman Tom Stillman is also a big proponent of the plan.
“The game of hockey has provided tremendous opportunities, both personal and professional, to everyone in the Blues organization. Certainly the game has given me more than I ever imagined,” said Stillman, who grew up playing hockey in Minnesota and also played college hockey. “My goal, and our goal, is to provide the same opportunities to St. Louis-area boys and girls who simply want to be able to say, ‘I play hockey.’ Through Hockey STL 2020, we believe this is possible.”
The Blues plan on putting some of the money to use in upgrading current youth hockey facilities and developing new ones. With that in mind, they have enlisted the support of hockey retail giant Total Hockey and other business partners along with local amateur hockey programs in St. Louis and the metro-east.
“We recognize that there’s really passionate players, fans and kids that we want to speak to on both sides of the river,” Zimmerman said.
A new regional hockey facility with at least two rinks is planned for the fall of 2017 and could serve as a new practice home for the Blues. A Heartland of Hockey Holiday Invitational tournament is scheduled to begin in 2016.
“That’s a project we have a lot of interest in, it would really be a centerpiece of this program,” Zimmerman said of the potential new rink construction. “We’re still looking at a number of other facilities as well”
According to the Blues, the St. Louis and metro-east area is home to 21 current ice sheets hosting more than 7,000 boys and girls youth hockey players. In Illinois, that includes the East Alton Ice Arena and rinks in Cahokia and Granite City. McKendree University’s planned Metro RecPlex in O’Fallon has two ice sheets and is scheduled to open in fall, 2016.