Since the Nashville Predators first hit the ice in 1998, hockey has continued to grow not just in Tennessee, but in other “non-traditional” areas of the country. With this tremendous growth comes the discovery of new talent that was once left unnoticed. As Chris Peters of The United States of Hockey shows in his latest article, the 2013-14 season showed that there were more people playing hockey in the United States than ever before. While Tennessee is still waiting for the huge boom that has been seen in California and Texas, it’s still continuing to grow. With the opening of the new Ford Ice Center in Antioch, Tennessee, the numbers should continue to flourish when there are six sheets of ice in the Nashville area. The increasing availability of the sport means that there are more young players that have the skills necessary to continue on and play in college or junior leagues as well as, quite possibly, a professional league. Enter the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase.
The Elite Edge Hockey Showcase started nine years ago with just 62 players and it has grown to 240 players this year. From June 15-18, those players, representing 27 states and four countries (United States, Canada, Latvia and Norway), participated in day-long activities on and off the ice. Ranging in age from 14-17, the players were put through physical workouts, leadership training and on-ice drills to teach them more about the game they love. It’s something that Brandon Walker, Manager of of Hockey Operations for the Nashville Predators, is truly excited about every year, especially how it showcases players from the south.
“This is the biggest year we’ve had in terms of overall enrollment,” said Walker of the showcase and its growth. “Kids were driving around, spending a lot of money going to places to try to be seen. It made more sense, because hockey was growing so much and things were going well, to bring those kids to the same place and have teams come watch.”
The showcase has grown so much over the past few years, that it truly is an opportunity for NCAA coaches and junior teams to get an idea of the talent here.
“When we started, it was a couple junior teams and colleges,” said Walker. “Now we have seven Division I NCAA colleges represented, eight Division III colleges, four USHL teams, ten North American Hockey League teams, numerous Tier III teams and more. Overall, we have about 40 plus teams that are here on our staff, then there will be ten to fifteen more that will come to watch on their own.”
Knowing that this many teams from all over the country come to Tennessee to see players shows how much the respect for talent has grown over the years. It’s something that parents are thankful for to have closer to home. Nancy Wood of Buford, Georgia, has two sons (Connor and Nash) attending the showcase. Connor Wood has actually committed to play hockey at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
“It’s our fourth year coming to this camp,” said Wood. “I just think it’s a great camp. The kids have a lot of great exposure and it’s extremely well-organized. They also meet a lot of different people from a lot of different places and the scouts and the coaches are just really great.”
Aside from the on-ice activities, the players are put through rigorous physical tests as well.
“If they’re not exhausted, then they haven’t worked hard enough,” said Wood. “That’s my opinion as a mother. I expect them to be tired. That’s why we’re here.”
One of the important parts of the off-ice training the players receive are the team building and leadership training exercises. The majority of the players present play on travel teams and that in itself teaches these young players a lot about life. It’s not only important for the players to understand, but the parents as well. Eugene Eng Tow of Nashville is the parent of Brendan Eng Tow who plays for the TPH Thunder (a travel team) and he describes the importance quite well.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle,” said Eng Tow. “When people make that commitment, your family becomes your team. You spend a lot of time together. Playing travel hockey has a huge benefit for the kids. Not only do they have to manage their time better, but it teaches them about teamwork and life skills and what it takes to be successful. If you look at a lot of today’s kids, if our kids didn’t spend 98% of their time playing hockey or training, who knows what they would get into.”
Commitment to the game isn’t just shown by the parents that travel with the players, but the players themselves. While the showcase featured a very southern-heavy crowd, players traveled from all over the country and the world to attend.
“The director [Brandon Walker] of the program is from my hometown, so he let me know about it and that’s how I got down here,” said Cody Goliath, a defenseman from Duncan, British Columbia, whose goal is to play Division I college hockey. “It’s been fantastic here. I’ve met tons of great people with lots of great skills.”
If parents wanted their children to be exhausted after a full day’s work, it was certainly achieved.
“The fact that we have to do all the fitness testing at the beginning between the running, the jumps and everything else right on to the ice is exhausting,” said Goliath. “The camp is fantastic for the physical training as well as the exposure.”
While Goliath started playing before even starting school, some of the players from Nashville have a more different background.
“When I was younger, a couple friends in school were playing,” said Austin Smith of Nashville who plays for the U-16 Junior Predators. “I had tried every other sport so I figured I might as well try this one and I fell in love with it.”
Smith has been attending the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase for two years now and he’s enjoyed his experience each year.
“It’s amazing getting to play in front of all these coaches and scouts and all the knowledge they provide is unbelievable,” said Smith. “The leadership training helps you separate yourself from other players and just on the ice, you can separate yourself from a character standpoint.”
One thing that can be noticed above all that is seen on the ice is that the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase teaches the players how to be professionals. Nowadays, when a team interviews a prospect, their character alone can determine if and when they will be drafted. After witnessing two days’ worth of the showcase, it can be seen that the Nashville area is quickly becoming a hotbed for hockey and a great centerpiece for featuring the future’s best and brightest.
With how hockey is continuing to grow in areas where some never though it would, it proves that there’s a wealth of hockey talent all over the world just waiting to be discovered. If you bring the game to the people, they will learn to love it and play it. All they need to do is be given the opportunity.
Video from the Nashville Predators: