By Stu Hackel
It's "Hockey Weekend across America," a celebration of the game that also includes the NHL and NBC's "Hockey Day in America" on Sunday. This nationwide initiative, which USA Hockey inaugurated five years ago, actually began today with "Wear Your Jersey Day" -- and if you didn't pull one on to go to work or school, consider wearing one tonight. I'm sitting at the computer wearing a circa 1962-63 Baltimore Clippers sweater with one of my favorite logos -- and, yes, it's really a sweater although, alas, a replica. I used to listen to the Clippers' AHL games long distance over WBAL in the early '60s. It's a good, warm sweater and in pretty good shape, even though the sleeves are big to fit elbow pads under them. Makes it a bit difficult to type.
On its website, USA Hockey lists a number of featured events from Connecticut to California and from Texas to Montana. They're also promoting the slate of 13 televised college games tonight, including the nationally broadcast Dartmouth vs. Yale match on NBC Sports Network. Additionally, on Saturday, dozens of rinks around the country will participate in the "Try Hockey For Free" promotion, which is just what it says.
If you have always wanted to try the sport and you're in the area of one of those rinks, there's an opportunity for you to give it a shot. USA Hockey has a map on its site with the locations and further information, and you should note that some of the blue balloons that pinpont the location of the promotion actually designate multiple places when you click on it. Last year, USA Hockey says 6,000 kids tried the game for the first time during this event. During the last 20 years, USA Hockey registration grew from 195,000 male and female players of all ages in 1990-91 to 475,000 in 2009-10.
Two of the NHL's top hockey cities will be the sites of special events during the weekend. In Buffalo, over 50 of the best young players connected with the Hockey is For Everyone program will come to town for the fourth annual Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend, hosted by the Buffalo affiliate of the program, Hasek's Heroes. They kids will take in the Sabres game against the Canadiens tonight, then on Saturday get some skills instruction from Sabres alumni and see demonstrations from USA Hockey and NCAA Division I representatives. O'Ree, the first black player in NHL history will be there as will NHL coaching great Scotty Bowman, again participating in the weekend as he has in the past. The kids play a game Sunday on the Sabres' home rink, the First Niagara Center. They'll also hear from mentors about the importance of continuing to focus on their education away from the rink. As was the case in previous years, boys and girls from youth hockey organizations throughout North America, including those based in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary participated in the O'Ree Weekend. More on this event can be read here.
And in Detroit, the Red Wings will turn Joe Louis Arena into a hub of activity in Hockeytown. After the Wings play the Predators on Friday night, hoping to extend their 21-game home unbeaten streak, the Joe will host 24 hours of Hockey Weekend events, including a celebrity game, two "Try Hockey For Free" sessions, and youth games. The Wings will practice outdoors on Saturday. After their game on Sunday against the Sharks, there will be more events at the Joe, including a high school championship game. You can read the details here.
On Sunday, the NBC Sports Group will air nine hours of non-stop NHL games, starting with three regional matches over the NBC broadcast network at noon Eastern Time: the Penguins at Buffalo, the Sharks in Detroit, and the Blues visiting Chicago. That's followed at 3 PM by the Bruins in Minnesota. Then at 6 PM on the NBC Sports Network, the Devils play in Montreal. You can read more about this day's activities here.
Former NHL star and Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, who grew up playing the game first in the St. Louis area and then around Detroit, and who coaches youth hockey on Long Island, told Mike G. Morreale of NHL.com this week that he looks forward to Hockey Weekend Across America each season.
"To celebrate the game and bring out more awareness to some boys, girls and parents who might not know the game as well, and introduce it to them, it's a great thing. Hockey has been celebrated in Canada for as long as I can remember, but when you think of our hockey history, I feel it's just as important for the United States to celebrate, as well."
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