When discussing American hockey, the debate for decades has almost always been whether Minnesota or Massachusetts is the best. Understandably so, as historically these are the two states that have produced the most NHL talent, but it’s Long Island that leads the way at this year’s United States World Junior Evaluation Camp.
Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets), Jeremy Bracco (Toronto Maple Leafs/Boston College), Ryan Hitchcock (Yale University), Brandon Fortunato (Boston University), and Charlie McAvoy (Boston University/2016 NHL Draft) made it through the first round of cuts in Lake Placid. With five representatives, Long Island is the home of more players on the roster than any other single state.
The big question is how? Only ten men born on Long Island have ever played in more than 20 NHL games to this point, though Keith Kinkaid will likely make it eleven this season, and the region has never been regarded as a hotbed of talent.
To service an island that nearly eight-million people call home, there are only three AAA youth hockey programs—Long Island Gulls, PAL Junior Islanders, and the Long Island Royals of NHL Network’s “Making of a Royal” fame. The tucked-away campus of Portledge School on Nassau County’s north shore is another option for high level hockey, with current Nashville Predator Eric Nystrom and former NHLers Douglas Murray and Ryan Vesce being the most notable alumni for the time being. Milano, Bracco, and Fortunato each spent time at Portledge.
But like many Long Islanders who feel theirs nothing left for them in their hometown do, the NHL franchise that made this all possible is moving to Brooklyn.
The argument for NHL expansion, and really the expansion of professional sports leagues in general, is to grow the sport and develop new audiences. It’s why a second NHL franchise in the Toronto area is still a ways away, despite being likely the most sound financial move for the league. Putting a new hockey franchise in Quebec or Toronto doesn’t create new hockey fans, it just changes their allegiances.
Despite being financial failures, there’s no doubt that the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes have created new hockey fans in non-traditional markets. Auston Matthews and Shayne Gostisbehere are proof. Miami-native Randy Hernandez (eligible for the 2017 draft) spent his entire youth career in Florida before being chosen for the United States National Team Development Program this year.
Excluding Madison Square Garden’s emergency goaltender Joe Schaefer, Val James and Paul Skidmore were the first Long Islanders (James by way of Florida) to reach the NHL, both in the 1981-82 season with the Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues, respectively. James and Skidmore came up during the heyday of the Eastern Hockey League’s Long Island Ducks, playing together for the Suffolk Ducks junior hockey club in 1971-72, and represent the last pre-Islanders generation of Long Island hockey. The next players from Long Island to make it to the show were the Ferraro brothers in 1995-96.
It took a while to reach this point, but now that the Islanders are on their way out, the Island is on its way up. Many NCAA rosters feature at least one player from Long Island, the United States national teams have been littered with them over the last few years, and a handful are in the NHL today.
So while we’re more connected to the NHL than ever before in an age where we can watch full games on our phones, is it reasonable to suggest that the interest in youth hockey wanes over the next few years? Could Long Island’s time of producing top hockey talent be over as quickly as it started?