A Lasting Legacy

With An Eye Toward Launching Another Olympic Bid, Salt Lake City Looks Back At The Success Of The 2002 Winter Games

When the Olympic flame burning high above Rice-Eccles Stadium in downtown Salt Lake City was extinguished on the night of Feb. 24, 2002, it marked the end of one of the most successful Winter Games in history.

For the residents of Utah's capital city and those living along the Wasatch Mountain Range, it also ignited a spark that still smolders with the continued growth of youth hockey in the area.

Over the course of 17 glorious days, the world's greatest male and female hockey players skated under their countries' respective colors. Local fans were treated to some of the most entertaining hockey ever played, including a pair of gold-medal games that pitted the United States against Canada. 

Having a front row seat, so to speak, to the action captivated a new generation of local hockey fans that helped to bolster the ranks of long-time followers of the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, and more recently, the Utah Grizzlies.

"We always had that niche of hockey fans, but that niche expanded thanks to hosting the Olympics," said Dave Soutter, a long-time area hockey fan who grew up playing hockey in the 1970s. As his passion grew with the years, he became a scorekeeper for local pro teams, which in turn paved the way for him to hold a similar position during the Salt Lake Games.

Shortly after the Olympics, Soutter got together with other local parents to form the Davis County Youth Hockey Association. Prior to that, families of this Salt Lake suburb had to drive into the city or Ogden to practice and play.

"We kind of helped spread the enthusiasm, not only at younger youth levels but at the high school level as well," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt that what we have today is attributable to the Olympics."

Soutter saw that growth firsthand as his son, Alex, was bitten by the hockey bug and began a career in the game that continues today as both an adult player and a local coach. 

Alex was one of thousands of young boys and girls from all around the state who has taken advantage of the new rinks that were built shortly after Salt Lake was announced as the host city during the International Olympic Committee's Congress on June 17, 1995 and continued to be built after the Olympic flame went dark.

Prior to receiving the nod from the IOC, there were less than 2,000 registered players in the state. Last season those number rose to close to 4,500.

"The Olympics brought a lot of things to Utah that would never be here. I'm positive we wouldn't have the rinks we have today because of the Olympics," said Don Korth, a long-time local youth hockey administrator and coach who was awarded USA Hockey's Wm. Thayer Tutt Award as the organization's top volunteer in 2011. 

With more than 11 rinks located around the state, the key is figuring out how to keep recruiting and retaining more boys and girls in the game. 

That's where the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation comes in. Prior to 2006, the group's focus was on how to keep the venues in world-class condition and bring more international competitions to the area. Then, there was a shift in thinking  to develop more athletes in their own backyard. 

They teamed up with analytics company Qualtrics to look for new ways to engage, retain and enhance the experience of young athletes through sports. One of the ways the group has done that is to look at what's happening in Norway with their youth sports model. After that country's record-setting medals haul at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, a great deal of attention has turned to the Nordic country, which is roughly the size of California with the population similar to Minnesota. 

Norway is more concerned with building its athletic base by focusing on participation rather than competition and specialization, especially at younger ages. And the results are pretty shocking across the sporting spectrum.

"There are pretty common themes, but one thing that we've been focused on is how do we create Utah's way," said Luke Bodensteiner, chief of sport development at the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation and a one-time competitive ski racer in Norway. 

"We want to put it into the context of our community to move the needle to provide new the opportunities for our kids. As we all know, doing so creates great social, health and emotional benefits that come with playing  a variety  of  sports." 

All that is being done with an eye on the future, in more ways than one. In an era when many countries are shying away from tossing their hat into the Olympic ring out of fear of skyrocketing costs and political fallout, Salt Lake City is eager to build on its Olympic legacy by hosting another Winter Games, possibly as early as 2030.

And while the state has boasted several local natives to suit up in the NHL, including Steve Konowalchuk and Trevor Lewis, there is a growing momentum that could have local fans cheering on homegrown talent the next time the puck drops on Olympic ice in Salt Lake City. 

Issue: 
2020-01

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