GRAPEVINE — In a state known for its rough and tumble sports, thousands of Texans are warming up to ice hockey.
Texas born-and-bred families like the Burks of McKinney are passing over the football gridiron and embracing the ice.
Gary Burk played football in high school, but his son, Gary Burk Jr., showed an interest in hockey when he was five years old.
Now at 12, he travels across the country playing for a highly competitive team.
He says his friends think it’s odd.
“They don't run into much people that play hockey,” the middle school student said. “Most people at our school play football or basketball or something like that, and when the coach asks what sport I play, I say 'hockey,' and it surprises them — a lot.”
While a study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) shows the popularity of hockey is sinking nationally — down by 22 percent in the past eight years — in North Texas, the sport has seemingly boomed.
Texas has 11 professional hockey teams — more, owners say, than any other state.
In November, the city of Allen opened a $56 million arena to house the Allen Americans, a minor league team.
“The contact — that aspect, I think, really attracts people, especially from this area of the country that are football fans,” said the team’s coach Dwight Mullins, who moved to Texas from Canada 15 years ago to play for the former Central Hockey League team, the Fort Worth Fire.
In North Richland Hills, another team, the Brahmas, have been selling out games. Last year, the team won its league championship.
“I think it comes generally with Texans themselves, how they gravitate to their football and to the excitement of that," Mullins said. "I think it has translated over to our sport, which I think has been exciting.”
That excitement largely started in 1993 when the Minnesota North Stars announced the team was moving south to Dallas.
The Stars, however, didn’t focus just on promoting the team. They had to introduce the sport to the region.
The organization built ice rinks in the suburbs called Dr Pepper StarCenters, and encouraged kids to try the sport.
There are now six StarCenters, as well as many more ice rinks throughout North Texas.
“The Stars deserve an awful lot of credit for helping to forge the growth,” said Dave Fischer with USA Hockey. “They’ve become a model for the entire hockey league on how to use the fan base to help build the sport.”
When the Stars moved to Texas, Fischer says only about 250 kids were playing hockey in North Texas. Now there are more than 8,000 youngsters registered with USA Hockey.
Karson Kaebel helped start the Ice Jets, an elite hockey program for children, based in Grapevine. He says Texas — along with other Sun Belt states like Arizona — are becoming hockey hotbeds.
Kaebel said the Stars laid the foundation when they won the NHL championship in 1999. "These kids are five, six years old at the time; the parents see that on TV and go, ‘Hey, I want to get my kid in hockey.’ Well, you're starting to see the fruit of that now,” Kaebel said.
His program coaches 15 teams of kids ranging in age from five to 18. They train up to three hours a day, five days a week.
They compete in tournaments across the country; the older boys' team recently swept a tournament in Canada.
“I think it's still a little bit shocking for the northern people to realize teams from Texas are doing that good,” Kaebel said, adding the state has suddenly become a prime recruiting ground.
“A lot of the kids are passing the kids up north because of the emphasis on the training and the emphasis on the skills.”
Still, hockey in North Texas has yet to approach the popularity of other team sports.
SGMA ranks ice hockey 19th in terms of how many Americans play the sport — behind cheerleading, even paintball. The study shows basketball is by far the most popular sport for Americans to play.
A big reason is the price tag. Most hockey families have six-figure incomes, and can easily spend $10,000 a year on the sport.
It’s a sacrifice the Burks don't mind making for their son.
“I think he's got a better opportunity to get into college or something because of hockey than he does football,” Gary Burk said, “because the amount of football players out there against the amount of hockey players out there is so one-sided.”