How youth hockey is on the rise in this unlikely location

Hockey is Canada’s game, right? The United States currently reigns supreme as 2021 World Junior champions. Scandinavia produces more NHL players per capita than anywhere in the world. Plus, Russia has been a virtual hockey factory, cranking out top talent every year for the past three decades.

These four corners of the globe account for 91 percent of the player population in the NHL and six of the last seven Olympic gold medals, as well as the previous 20 world junior championships. 

But what’s a sport without growth? Growth that hinges greatly on the development of the game in remote regions. 

Future and current Hockey Hall of Famers like Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and Zdeno Chara paved the way for the sport’s popularity in Central Europe, putting the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the world hockey map. Now, more than 50 players in the NHL hail from Central European countries like Czech, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, Latvia and Italy. 

The league’s reigning MVP, Leon Draisaitl, is a native of Germany, as is the No. 3 overall pick from the 2020 NHL Draft, Tim Stützle. Nashville Predators captain Roman Josi, starting goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Elvis Merzlikins, rising star Alexandre Texier, as well as top prospects Marco Rossi and Moritz Seider. It’s quite clear that the growth of the game has continued on its upward trajectory to the next generation of hockey players as well.

Now hockey’s crosshairs turn north to the United Kingdom, where it’s quickly become the country’s most popular indoor sport. 

“Hockey is growing in the U.K.,” said 14-year-old Gregor Mills. “Teams are split into age groups – currently U9, U11, U13, U15 and U18. There are about 32 club teams in England at each age level and about 16 in Scotland. These are split into North League and South League in England. Each team plays 20 league games at each age group.”

In addition to league games, players are selected to regional teams. There are four regions: Northern, Midlands, Southeast and Southwest. These are known as conference teams and compete in showcases as well as a tournament in May of each year.

Mills is quickly making a name for himself in youth hockey. A 2006-birth year, he currently plays on both the U15 and U18 Bradford Bulldogs teams against opponents two, three and four years older than him.

Last season, Mills produced 47 goals and 64 points in 16 games. That’s not a typo. Rub your eyelids, let your vision refocus and read the sentence one more time… 47 goals and 64 points in 16 games. He was also the leading scorer in the four-team Winter Classic as the youngest player in the event. 

“I was a late starter to hockey, starting about five years ago when I was nine-years-old,” he said. “I had played lots of sports before this, soccer, rugby and judo mainly. I was on holiday and my family and I went to the ice rink for a day out. I saw some kids there flying around and thought that’s what I want to do.” 

Mills dove in head first, immersing himself in the sport and going all in on training both on and off the ice.

He commutes three hours one way to work with 14-year pro David Clarke to hone his puck skills, shooting ability and hockey IQ with other top players like Liam Kirk and David Phillips. Away from the rink, Gregor’s father Duncan is a former strength trainer, who provides in-depth workouts and exercises to improve his speed, strength and conditioning.

Growth of the game starts with passion for the sport at the youngest age groups. Look at the path of Auston Matthews and the influence from the Arizona Coyotes as an example.

In 1996, the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix, Arizona. The middle of the desert. A very unlikely hockey destination and very brand new concept to an area that thrived on outdoor sports and arid weather. A few years later, a youth hockey organization would follow in the professional team’s wake, establishing what would now be known as the Arizona Jr. Coyotes prior to the 2006-07 season.

Ten years after that, Matthews, a product of that very youth organization, would be selected first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft. It is a 20-year story in the making to explain how a kid from the desert becomes the top prospect in all of hockey.

It may take years, even decades, for regions to truly see tangible, big-time results for their efforts in youth hockey. With the rapid growth of the game, and passionate players like Gregor Mills at the ground floor, we could very well be witnessing the upswing of hockey in the U.K.

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