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The Rise of Hockey in the Sun Belt

How Warm-Weather Cities Are Embracing the Sport

By: Sarah Overton

(Photo courtesy Getty Images)

Hockey has long been considered a sport for cold-weather climates, with its roots firmly planted in Canada and the northern United States. However, in recent years hockey has been thriving in non-traditional markets with warmer-weather climates, such as Dallas, Las Vegas, Raleigh, and various regions in Florida. These cities have embraced the sport with unwavering enthusiasm and created an environment that fans are eager to be a part of.

Although these franchises may be newer, they have made their mark on the NHL.

In fact, the 2023 Stanley Cup Conference Finals highlighted the success of teams from non-traditional markets, as all four teams hailed from the Sun Belt.

The Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, and Las Vegas Golden Knights, all of which emerged during or after the 1990s, have defied the conventional narrative and solidified their place among the league's elite. Their presence in the Conference Finals is a testament to these organizations' unwavering commitment, the dedication of their fans and the overall evolution of hockey in warmer climates.

The expansion of hockey to the Sun Belt has a lot to do with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Over the last 30 years Bettman has been the league's commissioner, he has helped the NHL grow from 24 to 32 teams. This includes the development of prominent teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and the 2023 Stanley Cup Champions, the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

Bettman believes that bringing hockey to non-traditional markets allows the game to grow and introduces new fans to the sport. He has expressed that he is particularly proud of growing the game across America and seeing the number of U.S.born NHL players rise.

"One of [the] top overall picks, Auston Matthews, has said it was going to an Arizona Coyotes game as a young boy that first exposed him to hockey," Bettman said. "The NHL Board of Governors -- all the owners in our League -- had the vision to encourage expansion to new markets that were never thought of as hockey hot-beds… the NHL has helped bring hockey to entire regions of the country that never had an opportunity to focus on our sport or the NHL game."

While Bettman may have helped spark the interest of hockey in non-traditional markets, these franchises have found their own ways of engaging fans and creating thriving cultures.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, the Carolina Hurricanes have created a vibrant hockey culture that thrives on fan engagement.

The team's innovative approach to fan engagement, particularly the "Storm Surge" celebrations, has become a hallmark of their games. These post-victory celebrations, featuring choreographed skits and interactions with fans, have energized both the players and spectators alike. The team has also embraced its southern roots by incorporating elements of southern culture into their game-day experience, such as tailgating.

The Hurricanes and their passionate fans showed Raleigh's vitality as a market when they hosted the 2023 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series.

This game was one of two outdoor games that the NHL hosted during the 2022-2023 season and drew in nearly 57,000 people. Some of the Hurricanes faithful even started tailgating at 9 a.m., almost 12 hours before puck drop, to show their support for the team.

(Photo courtesy Bryan Regan/ Walter Magazine)

"I've been here 23 years," Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "There's zero chance you'd have said when I got here that we could pull something like this off. It's been a lot of hard work for a ton of people and a testament to the support of the fans that we have here to be able to do this. We've come a long way as a hockey market, and I'm pretty proud of that."

By embracing their unique identity, the Hurricanes have created an inclusive environment that fosters a deep sense of community.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the Golden Knights have achieved great success on and off the ice.

When the Knights burst onto the ice in 2017 as the first major professional sports franchise in Las Vegas, skeptics wondered if hockey could truly thrive in a city known for its entertainment, gambling, and warm climate.

However, the Golden Knights have defied expectations and become a resounding success story in a non-traditional hockey market. In just six years since their inaugural season, the Knights have managed to win the Stanley Cup and have only missed the playoffs once.

Part of the Knights' success has to do with the team's connection to the Las Vegas community.

In the wake of the 2017 mass shooting that left 58 people dead, the Knights rallied around the city of Las Vegas, and became a symbol of hope and resilience for the community. The team visited victims and their families at the hospital and dedicated their inaugural opening night to those who lost their lives.

(Photo courtesy Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"People from Las Vegas wanted something more than the Strip. They wanted something that was theirs. So we tapped into that," Las Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley said.

The Golden Knights have also recognized the importance of growing the sport at the grassroots level to ensure its long-term sustainability in Las Vegas.

The team has invested in local ice rinks, providing resources and support to help develop youth hockey programs. Additionally, they have launched initiatives to introduce the sport to a broader audience, offering learn-to-play programs, organizing street hockey tournaments and hosting clinics for aspiring young players.

By actively promoting the game within the community and providing accessible pathways for involvement, the Golden Knights have contributed significantly to the growth of hockey in Las Vegas.

Through their dedicated efforts to connect with fans and their commitment to expanding the sport at the grassroots level, the Golden Knights have created a powerful bond with the community and are actively cultivating a hockey culture that continues to thrive.

Hockey in non-traditional markets has even found success outside of the NHL.

In Palm Desert, California, the Coachella Valley Firebirds of the AHL have developed a dedicated fan base during their inaugural season.

This past season, the Firebirds hosted nearly 118,000 fans in over 13 home playoff games. This number is the highest playoff attendance by one team in AHL history. The Firebirds have also recorded four postseason sellouts.

(Photo courtesy of the Coachella Valley Firebirds)

The rise of hockey in non-traditional markets with warmer climates is a testament to the sport's ability to capture the hearts of fans regardless of geographic location.

Through innovative fan engagement strategies, community involvement and the creation of unique traditions, teams in cities like Las Vegas, Raleigh, and Palm Desert have successfully fostered a thriving hockey culture.

As the sport continues to grow in these non-traditional markets, the unwavering dedication of both the teams and their fans ensures that the spirit of hockey will flourish for years to come.

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