Power Play: The Higher Learning of the National Hockey League

Article excerpt

AS AMERICAN AS MOM, APple pie, and baseball? As futurists, we think this heretofore timeless axiom could use an extreme makeover to better reflect the popular professional sports of our contemporary culture.

These days the conventional "big three" professional sports (baseball, basketball, and football) look on from the sidelines as America's new power sports--NASCAR, extreme sports, and hockey--ignite the next generation of athletes.

What do NASCAR drivers, extreme sports athletes, and professional hockey players have in common? They are smarter, faster, and more nimble than their traditional predecessors. This first month of winter we take a closer look at collegiate and pro hockey trend lines. Gone are the days of assuming that those who play hockey are all brawn and no brains.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is, ironically, the second oldest of the four major pro team sports leagues in North America, yet only recently has hockey become a game of finesse, nuance, and strategy--all intricately executed on ice for a blend of excitement, speed, and action. According to a recent Simmons Market Research Bureau consumer study, NHL fans are younger, more educated, more affluent, and more digitally connected than any other fan base. No wonder hockey's popularity on and off campus has grown exponentially over the last decade.

Last year, approximately 1,500 student athletes participated in NCAA hockey, which reports a hockey graduation success rate of 83 percent, in comparison to baseball's 68 percent, football's 67 percent, and basketball's 62 percent. Who says that hockey players don't have intellectual prowess?

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In years gone by, the typical NHL player would be selected from Canadian Junior A Leagues, composed of teams that recruited players from middle and high schools. Fast-forward to the 2009-2010 year: insiders predict an ever-increasing cohort of NHL players will be drafted from U.S. colleges and universities.

According in Professor John Wong of Washington State University, American collegiate hockey has elevated its ability to produce players capable of stepping into the NHL, as the number of players in the past decade being picked in the first round of the draft demonstrates. At the same time, it seems the NHL is leaving individual teams to explore their own new markets and, with increasing frequency, those markets include American colleges and universities. "Each year, the National Hockey League works with its member clubs to grow the great sport of hockey on and off the ice," said Keith Martin Jr., NHL vice president of community and diversity programming, when he announced that Spelman College in Atlanta had won the NHL and Atlanta Thrashers' marketing challenge.

HIGHER ED IMPACT

Clearly, collegiate hockey is no longer an interest of a handful of remote, snowbound institutions. Big-name schools known for traditional sports dynasties are getting into the mix--including Boston University, Boston College, Notre Dame, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Whether players use their degrees in post-NHL careers or in careers immediately following college, the role of higher education now has a significant impact on a player's future and a pro team's popularity on campus.

According to Charlie Titus, vice chancellor for athletics and recreation, special programs and projects, at the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB), "Our hockey players have to make smart choices both on and off the ice. It is imperative that they excel in the classroom so that they can succeed with discipline on the ice. UMass Boston hockey players rank in the top 30 percent in terms of academic performance of our entire student athlete population. …