Lightning a reminder southern hockey continues to thrive
FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) About the time a new champion hoists the Stanley Cup, players from Canada, Latvia and Hungary will gather in Tennessee for four days to showcase their hockey talent for college coaches and junior league teams.
Yes, Tennessee - one of the many places in the South where the sport is alive and doing well.
The Tampa Bay Lightning's matchup against the New York Rangers in the NHL's Eastern Conference finals is another reminder that hockey is doing more than just surviving below the Mason-Dixon line.
''It's just a great shot in the arm to an area that's already doing really well,'' said Brandon Walker, hockey operations manager for the Nashville Predators.
The region often labors in the shadows of the Bostons, Chicagos and, of course, Canada.
But its success has been building for some time.
The Washington Capitals celebrated their 40th season in the nation's capital this year, although it all came to a disappointing end after a Game 7 loss to the Rangers in the semifinals.
But the Capitals and Lightning, along with the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes all have played in the Stanley Cup Finals - with Tampa Bay winning in 2004 and Carolina in 2006. The Nashville Predators have played in two conference semifinals, and even the newest of the Southern franchises are nearing their 20th anniversaries, milestones already marked by Florida and Tampa Bay.
Nashville will host the NHL All-Star Game in January.
One of the lone blemishes on the resumes of the southern franchises was the demise of the Atlanta Thrashers, who packed their bags and headed North to Winnipeg in 2011.
That setback is overshadowed by the overall success of franchises in the South.
Walker also is program director for the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase, an indication of the sport's growth in the region.
The program started with 60 players drawn from Nashville and Atlanta 10 years ago. It now includes players from 29 states seeking the chance to play in front of coaches from Division I colleges like Yale and Colgate to Division III schools and teams from the North American Hockey League, a junior league. Walker no longer has to beg coaches to take his call.
Now they call Walker.
''They're not coming just to listen to country music for a couple days,'' Walker said. ''They're coming because these kids are good, and there's someone here for them to see. There's a lot of places that Division I hockey coaches can come and watch players throughout the course of the summer. They're going to come here because the players are good, and they choose to come here because they're having success recruiting here.''
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said late last month that the value of NHL franchises is going up with new TV contracts. USA Hockey's registration totals and the number of Division I college programs have never been higher.
That doesn't mean there aren't problems, most notably attendance.
The Capitals, Lightning and Predators do well in that area.
Washington set the standard both for longevity and success as the oldest team in the region. Game 6 of the Capitals series against the Rangers was their 269th consecutive home sellout with 18,506 fans.
The Lightning, in their third conference final, also has had solid support for years.
Tampa Bay averaged 18,823 per game this season to rank ninth in attendance and sold out its first seven playoff games. The Predators filled their building to 98.5 percent of capacity this season with a franchise-record 30 sellouts and have reached the playoffs eight of the past 11 seasons.
On the other side of the ledger are Carolina and Florida, which had the NHL's worst attendance this season.
The Hurricanes have the longest active playoff drought in the East at six straight seasons and have earned only one postseason berth since winning the Stanley Cup. But the Hurricanes are the one team fans split among the state's Atlantic Coast Conference schools can agree on, and the organization is rebuilding after bringing in Ron Francis as general manager and Bill Peters as coach last year.
The Panthers averaged a league-worst 11,271, with too many photos of empty seats. But Bettman cites Tampa Bay as proof of what a committed front office with resources can do thanks to owner Jeff Vinick. Bettman believes Florida owner Vincent Viola, who bought the Panthers in 2013, will follow that example.
''Vinny is committed to South Florida and doing all the things necessary to turn the franchise around,'' Bettman told Associated Press Sports Editors. ''And I know he's spoken to Jeff Vinick about the things that he did to make it work.''
In Nashville, the Predators conduct a variety of programs teaching youngsters to play the game.
The team now runs Nashville's newest rink, which gives the area six sheets of ice. Nashville President and CEO Sean Henry sees Predators gear being sold across the area, not just in hockey stores, along with street hockey sticks and nets popping up in neighborhoods.
Some of the same people who were taken to hockey games by their parents as children now are working and buying their own tickets.
''The fact we flipped the calendar and these kids are graduating high school and college that started as fans as little kids,'' Henry said, ''that's solidifying where we are now.''
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow in New York, Howard Fendrich in Washington, Joedy McCreary in North Carolina and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.