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Sanford Myers, Associated Press
This Oct. 10, 2011 photo shows youth hockey practice at the A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin, Tenn. The NHL's Southern strategy is paying dividends where children now dream of growing up to play in the NHL and win Olympic gold medals for the United States.

FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Children fill every bench and sprawl over the floor lacing up hockey skates, eager to hit the ice. Parents hold jackets and patiently wait. Just another typical Saturday morning at the rink.

Except this is in the middle of Tennessee.

Atlanta may not be able to hold onto an NHL team, and ponds in the South are for fishing and swimming, not ice skating. But the league's Southern strategy is paying dividends where children now dream of playing in the NHL and winning Olympic gold medals.

Pat Kelleher of USA Hockey says the game truly has become a national sport with the NHL trying to have a national footprint. With Southern teams working to grow their audience, USA Hockey's membership has boomed from 1998 to 2011 in those states.