When 6-year-old Evan Gould takes the ice for his youth hockey games, he often emulates moves he has seen from his favorite players on the Washington Capitals.
"I've been to a lot of games. I like to watch how they do it and then try that in my games," Evan said. "I play defense and my job is to get the puck away. I love everything about the game."
A quick survey of his bedroom proves it. Posters of Caps players deck the walls, complementing bobbleheads and other NHL memorabilia.
"I can't wait to play," he said, in reference to weekly practice and games on Saturday. "I used to play soccer, but hockey is more fun."
Evan's level of interest is what USA Hockey has hoped for.
"After two seasons of concentrated efforts to grow youth hockey participation in the 4- to 8-year-old age category, there has been a positive impact," said John Coleman, president of The Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, an affiliate of the Southeastern District of USA Hockey. "We have seen a major up-tick in our area and more younger players are getting involved."
According to the most recent figures released by USA Hockey, youth hockey has seen a dramatic rise in numbers across the country.
The 4- to 8-year-old group has seen a 7 percent increase in membership since the 2007-08 season, including a 4.5 percent growth during the 2009-10 season, according to USA Hockey. Those numbers are even larger in Northern Virginia, where averages have almost doubled those figures.
"It's exploded. We call it the Ovechkin factor," said Larry Roe, coaching director for the Reston Raiders Hockey Club. "The only reason it's not substantially bigger is the lack of available ice."
For the hockey novice, Alexander Ovechkin is one of the top scorers in the NHL -- since he tallied 106 points during his rookie campaign in 2005-06, he has turned the Washington Capitals into winners.
Roe has been involved in hockey in the Northern Virginia area for close to 20 years. Back in 1988, the eldest of his three sons was playing in the Mt. Vernon league and Roe thought the program should expand.
"I wanted to see the sport grow and grow the hockey club, but at the time, those in charge didn't think there was a lot of interest. So I left and started the Reston Raiders Hockey Club with some others," he said. "I thought hockey was much more popular than they gave it credit for -- and as it turns out, I think we were right."
Within three years, the Reston Raiders had more than 600 children playing in its league and were turning people away because of the lack of ice rinks in the area.
"Back then, people would camp out at night in the parking lot and form a line to make sure they could get into the hockey club by being first," Roe said. "Today we have about 750 [to] 800 kids and we are busting at the seams."
As current president of the Reston Raiders, Chris Kelly also has been impressed with the number of youth who turn out year after year. The league currently has a waiting list of about 60 players.
"Where we're growing the sport are from those who never had a parent play and are interested in checking it out," he said. "If they enjoy it, they usually stay with it. Once you get a kid on the ice playing, they are usually hooked."
Youth hockey gradually has been changing the past few years. USA Hockey has developed an "American Development Model" with the focus on developing better skills for younger players rather than focusing on games.
"For the younger kids, [USA Hockey is] putting the focus on playing locally and spending money on cross ice hockey rather than promoting traveling," Roe said. "I think you will see a decline in the number of teams that go away to tournaments in younger years."
Despite its increasing popularity, one thing is troubling to many players and parents: the cost.
"Playing hockey costs money and there's no way around it," Coleman said. "Ice cost is a big issue and the rinks are experiencing ever-increasing utility costs. There's no question that when you are dealing with rinks charging what they have to charge per hour that it's not an inexpensive sport."
Yet even a down economy has been no match for the dedication of the youth hockey player.
"We are a nonprofit but when the economy started going south we were pretty nervous on how we would continue to function, but our numbers did not drop off," Kelly said. "If people are cutting back on things, very rarely would I say that they are going to take a kid's youth sport from them -- even one ridiculously expensive like ice hockey."
To keep costs down, Coleman said Northern Virginia players can have a very good experience at house/recreational programs and never have to leave their individual rink at Ashburn, Reston, Kettler Capitals Iceplex or Mt. Vernon.
Rob Lorenzen has been general manager at Ashburn Ice for 10 years and oversees a successful house hockey program, the Ashburn Icehouse Youth House League.
"We've seen a continual growth in the sport starting at the younger ages, which filters up to the older age groups," he said. "We've been fortunate that the mite and mini-mite age levels have continued to flourish."
Each day after 6 p.m. youth hockey controls both rinks for four hours, and during most of the weekend, the ice also is tied up by the league.
"On Saturdays we have 17 hockey games starting as early as 7 a.m., and on Sundays we do another 14 or so," Lorenzen said. "Our house league has continued to grow year after year."
But not everyone wants to be in a house league. The amount of travel and cost of participating can vary significantly depending on what a player or his parents seek from the experience.
Evan currently plays in a house league, and although his parents considered placing him on a travel team, they decided the time commitment might have been a little too much at this point.
"The travel teams have extra games and schedule wise, with both of us working, we just couldn't do it," said Mark Gould, Evan's father. "We might consider it next season. He really enjoys hockey and he's been going to Caps games since he was 3."
The dilemma is common. In Northern Virginia, as players try to move up the pyramid into more competitive levels, the travel and cost often increases.
"Playing Raiders travel in the CBHL is going to set back the average family $4,000 for fees, tournaments, hotels and travel. Gear for a travel play is closer to $1,000 which includes a couple of $150 sticks each season," Kelly said. "Playing Washington Little Caps Tier 1 hockey the tab is closer to $6,000 as the travel is farther and overnights more frequent. This level will also have an equipment cost in the $1,000-per-season range."
For those who want to play in the more competitive travel leagues, the Chesapeake Bay Hockey League (formerly the Capital Beltway Hockey League) consists of 23 Tier II clubs located throughout Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Equipment prices also can be an issue. A good set of skates can run anywhere from $100 to $300, a top-of-the-line stick will fetch close to $400 and kids are required to wear a host of pads and protection. Goalies have it even worse with masks, gloves and other necessary specialty items.
"If your kid is into it and are going to continue, you are going to buy equipment as they continue to grow. The problem is you don't know if he or she is into it and you have to buy a lot," Coleman said. "Some of these programs have allowed us to get people in without a significant outlay of money."
To help combat the high costs and keep interest up, USA Hockey offers the One Goal Equipment program, which provides a less expensive, standardized equipment package to players. A number of rinks in the area have provided those as incentive for players interested in hockey.
"USA Hockey, the NHL and the equipment companies have developed One Goal to get sets of inexpensive equipment out to new young players," Coleman said. "A number of rinks and youth hockey programs have used 'try hockey for free' programs so that new players have an opportunity to try hockey without spending a lot of money on equipment."
The local USA Hockey Affiliate also gave $30,000 in grants this past season to local groups for its Grow the Game program, which is designed to bring the American Development model ideas and philosophy into their programs.
It's no surprise that most kids are requesting No. 8 for their jersey, but Ovechkin might soon have company as the hero to Virginia hockey fans.
In 2008, Roe's son Garrett was the first player born and raised in Virginia to be drafted by an NHL team. The Los Angeles Kings selected him with the 183rd pick, and he currently is playing college hockey at St. Cloud University.
Of course, most kids playing youth hockey today dream of following in his footsteps. As they get older, the more serious ones eventually leave the area in their high school years and head north to play prep school or junior hockey, putting themselves in a better position to gain exposure and attract college coaches.
"We want everyone to have a good time and learn the best skills they can," Kelly said. "The kids all think they will be playing with Ovechkin someday, which is fantastic, because they all should have that dream."