It was not uncommon during my teenage years, in the haze of the early morning, for me to fall asleep hunched over on the curb while waiting for the school bus. It was never a restful sleep, just a few minutes of fitful unconsciousness before my head was snapped back up to attention, either by the bus' booming arrival or by a lone tractor grunting its way down the otherwise empty street.
From there it was about an hour of bumpy travel. The tires whirring up plumes of gravel dust behind us as we made our way to another small town, of about 70,000 people, where I attended high school.
During those mornings, between more timid bouts of rest and the relative anarchy that occurs on a long bus ride filled with moody teens, it was commonplace to hear gossip about local hockey players: who was dating who, who was fighting who, and who had a real shot at making it to the pros—turns out quite a few did. That small Ontario town has graduated nearly 50 players to the NHL.
This isn't an anomaly. Studies have shown that, globally, small towns are incubators for professional athletes. Widely cited research, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, found that professional athletes are over-represented in cities of fewer than 500,000 and under-represented in cities of 500,000 or more.
About 25 percent of the United States population resides in cities with under 50,000 people, but nearly half of the players in the NFL are from areas that size. The trend is less significant but continues into the NHL (39 percent), MLB (38 percent), and NBA (28 percent)—and it’s not limited to team sports. Almost half the PGA’s golfers come from towns of fewer than 50,000 people.
In my own small town, aside from the grocery store, gas station, and church, the hockey rink was one of the few places that attracted year-round traffic.
A look at the rosters of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the two teams playing in the Stanley Cup Finals this year, contributes further evidence to the small-town edge.
Twenty-four of the Lightning’s 28 players come from cities of under 500,000 people, and eight players from towns of fewer than 20,000. For Chicago, 23 of 31 roster spots are filled by players who hail from cities of up to 500,000 people, including Brad Richards, a former Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, who was raised in Murray Harbour, Prince Edward Island, Canada—a fishing community of slightly more than 300 residents.
There’s no simple explanation for this but Jean Côté, a professor of sport psychology at Queen's University, has a few ideas.
He cites the accessibility of sports role models in small towns, the cultural importance placed on sport, and the freedom offered in a rural setting, where young athletes also take time to learn other skills and avoid burnout, as important developmental factors. Athletes from larger city centers participate in programs that are “over-organized” and “over-coached,” Cote told the Wall Street Journal. In these large youth leagues, skilled athletes can be lost in the crowd.
Some of sports most iconic figures are graduates of small towns. Jim Thorpe, Pele, Bo Jackson, and Wayne Gretzky all honed their skills in places that fewer than 100,000 people call home. For young athletes growing up small with big-league dreams, that matters. It erodes some of the mysticism attached to the professional ranks. It makes getting there—and getting out—seem possible.
Last year, a study of 22 countries found that cities with populations of between 10,000 and 100,000 people have increased rates of sport participation, particularly in team sports—sports that can foster a sense of community and identity, and keep the cycle going. In most cases, the same coaches remain in charge year after year, earning trust from the locals and the athletes, allowing them to play unrestrained, the best athletes further boosted by the big-fish/little-pond effect.
This is amplified in towns where sports are seen as a point of pride—places like Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, which is home to fewer than 10,000 people but has produced nine pro football players, including Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett. A mill town, Aliquippa has also weathered steady economic decline and racial conflict, but the local football field is something of a sanctuary. In a profile of the town titled “The Heart of Football Beats in Aliquippa,” Sports Illustrated referred to the field as a place of unity and hope.
In my own small town, aside from the grocery store, gas station, and church, the hockey rink was one of the few places that attracted year-round traffic. During the winter months cars would form crooked lines in the snowy parking lot and generations of players would cycle through the building. Parents would watch from the stands, heads pivoting with the action, steam rising from coffee cups, before taking to the ice themselves, elders in the cultural pageant of hockey.
The veteran players were faster and better and idolized for those reasons. The ice seemed to shine differently when they were on it, everything was brighter and crisper; marked by a palpable intensity, an intensity that had to be earned by experience.
As a kid, the fantasies of going pro were not yet understood as fantasies. No one cared how infinitesimally small the chances of being a professional athlete actually were. The naivety kept the dream protected. It kept hockey fun.
When the season ended, the final remnants of the rink were shoveled into a mountain of snow and dumped outside by the exit, a season’s worth of hockey left to melt into the ground. Neighborhood kids would gather up fistfuls of the soft ice and duck for cover during summer snowball fights. Errant tosses would explode against the arena’s brick wall, or splash into the nearby creek. There, gathered at the water’s edge, our feet sinking down into the muddy banks, we’d watch the shards of ice bob down the river, and wonder what it felt like to be bound for somewhere else.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.