Leave it to the Motor City to produce the ultimate hockey test-drive, fully loaded with no money down and no strings attached.
And leave it to Hockeytown to bring together some of the biggest hitters from around the state of Michigan – including the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Fox Sports Net, Perani’s Hockey World, RBK and the Detroit Red Wings – to put the game’s best skate forward in hopes of winning over a new legion of players and parents.
The end result was hundreds of boys and girls ages 5-11 years old who were able to step into local rink and onto the ice to try the sport in a “Hockey is Fun” clinic.
“The goal is to expose kids to the sport by giving them the opportunity to put on the equipment to see if they like it before signing up for a program,” said CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos.
“The smiles we saw over the course of the fun clinics we did last year are one of the best things I’ve experienced in hockey. I hope even more kids are able to enjoy the same feeling this year.”
More than 700 kids were introduced to hockey over a two-month span in the traveling clinic that went as far north as Marquette Mich., to the Berry Events Center, home of the Northern Michigan Wildcats, and as far south as Joe Louis
Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings, with two sessions on the second annual Hockey Day in Michigan.
Hockey is Fun clinics served not only as an informational springboard to youngsters regarding the sport, they also afforded participants like 6-year old Aaron Cox a chance to feel like a winner.
“The players and coaches did more than just teach my son about what it’s like to play hockey, they taught him acceptance, they taught him kindness and understanding, confidence and pride,” said Tawny Carpenter, Aaron’s mother, who attended the clinic at Lake Superior State’s Norris Center.
“Many people are unaware that Aaron has autism. I have seen him cry himself to sleep some nights feeling so down and lonely. [The night following the clinic] was the first night in a long time that my son fell asleep with a big smile on his face. He felt so important and so proud of himself that he ‘made a goal’ and ‘played hockey.’ It just lit up his entire night.”
Experiences like these happened because everyone worked together to ensure that every kid who entered a rink was made to feel like he or she had just won the Stanley Cup.
Just like a championship team, it was a collective effort from the planning stages to execution of the events.
“It’s like a Rubik’s hockey cube. We are all in this together,” said John Gumina, Fox Cable Networks Affiliate Director of Sales and Marketing. “Everybody was big in this. You would be surprised at how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. That’s typical of hockey people.”
Much of the credit goes to a promotional campaign that saw more than 100,000 flyers distributed through numerous school districts around the state.
“I think the critical partner in this is the school systems,” said Anastos. “We were able to get the word out to so many kids through the schools that there was an opportunity to try hockey for free.”
And once the players were pre-registered, having fun was the main component from the moment these soon-to-be hockey players entered the arena.
Participants not only received their very own hockey stick to take home but they also left with a jersey, hockey socks, a goody bag full of posters, a book, notepad, pencil and informational flyers, and most importantly, many great memories.
“One little boy wouldn’t stop giving me the giggles,” said Gumina. “He couldn’t stand up. We would fall and I would mock fall with him. We did it a half dozen times. I was laughing so hard because he enjoyed it. He wasn’t scoring goals, he was standing up, falling on his knees and giggling in sheer delight.”
Volunteer instructors included area coaches in addition to players at the college, high school and travel levels.
“[This experience is] just as rewarding as going to practice or scoring a goal in a game,” said Tim Michaels, a senior defenseman at Oakland University who volunteered as a Hockey is Fun Clinic instructor.
“Playing hockey is something I’ve done since I was 6 and I am 22 now. It’s been just a big part of my life and it’s a good time and you want to share it with other people too.”
Sometimes it is difficult to determine who has more fun – the kids who are learning or the instructors who are sharing the sport that has given them so much.
“I’ve taught hockey school before and if someone didn’t do something like this [for me], I wouldn’t be playing today and having the experiences that have come along the way,” said Scott Elder, a senior defenseman with Oakland University, the defending national champions of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
Create Your Own “Hockey Is Fun” Clinic
Interested in creating your own Hockey is Fun Clinic and becoming part of Hockey Weekend Across America (Feb. 15-17). Here is a quick game plan for your local program or arena to get new players to try the sport.
• Determine your goal (what ages will be included, minimum and maximum participation goals, etc.). Identify your partners in the event and how the equipment will be provided.
• Create a marketing plan. The key is to get into the elementary schools in the arena’s area.
• Establish a registration strategy from creating forms to collecting and confirming registrations.
• Build a volunteer staff and name a key contact person to be the on-site leader.
• Produce an action plan from the minute the participant and his parents enter the rink to when they leave. The key is to make them feel welcome. Have a knowledgeable volunteer in place to answer every question and offer assistance throughout the process.
• Develop an on-ice time line that incorporates the basics while infusing fun with small-ice games and a variety of drills.
• Follow-up is key. It’s critical to get the local hockey association involved to make the connection between the one-time experience and the steps they need to take to sign up for a program.
Once you get participants into the rink, the game practically sells itself. Your job is to be as organized and positive as you can to ensure that everyone involved has a great first experience. As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
“Actually, the one kid I was working with, it was his first time putting on hockey equipment and going out there. I looked over and saw his mom and she had the video camera out and a tear in her eyes. It feels good to be a part of something like that.”
It was also a learning experience for the parents.
“Graham has had an interest in hockey for a long time,” said Kathy Dallas, the 6-year old’s mother. “I said ‘no, it’s too expensive, the times don’t work for us.’ Then it kind of got to a point where I felt he was too old to start playing hockey.
We skated a lot this winter and I felt like he could handle that part of it and it was free – so it was a no-brainer. He had an absolute riot out there. I saw him scoring goals and waving his arms. It was worth it just to see the excitement on his face. It was a great experience. I think he is going to push me a lot harder to sign him up for hockey.”
The clinics assist in dispelling myths that hockey has to be expensive and take up a lot of time. As most hockey people know, if you can get people into the rink, the game takes care of the rest.
“Getting people to try the sport is maybe the biggest hurdle in addition to trying to keep players involved,” said Anastos.
“I think the youth hockey community has to think a little differently than maybe in the past where you have to look at ways to create the opportunities for kids.
“It’s too easy to say I’m not going to play that sport because it takes too much time or costs too much money. The truth is there are all kinds of options available to people, both in time commitment and affordability.”
One of Hockeytown’s favorite sons, Anastos makes no apologies for being an unabashed hockey salesman. His goal is to see as many kids as possible sold on hockey by the time the test drive is over.
Affiliate President: Mickey Jesue Web site: MAHA.org
Youth: 35,000, Girls: 3,088, Adults (Men & Women): 13,200
Largest Association: Suburban Hockey Group in Rochester, has 1989 registered players.Smallest Association: Gladwin Community Arena Adult Hockey Program has 11 registered players. Registered
Completely Registered Officials: 3,000
Number of Rinks: 160 rinks
Professional Teams: Detroit Red Wings (NHL), Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL), Flint Generals (UHL), Kalamazoo Wings (UHL), Muskegon Fury (UHL), Port Huron Flags (UHL),
College Programs: Michigan State University (CCHA), University of Michigan (CCHA), Ferris State (CCHA), Wayne State (CHA), Lake Superior State University (CCHA), Michigan Tech (WCHA), Northern Michigan (CCHA), Western Michigan (CCHA), Finlandia housing men’s hockey. Women’s Hockey: Wayne State (CHA), Adrian and Finlandia (Div. III). Junior Programs: Alpena Ice Diggers (NAHL), Marquette Rangers (NAHL), Traverse City North Stars (NAHL), Grand Rapids Junior Owls (CSHL), Flint Junior Generals (CSHL), Metro Jets (CSHL), Michigan Ice Dogs (CSHL), Motor City Chiefs (CSHL), Soo Indians (Independent Junior D), Plymouth Whalers (OHL).
Programs of Note: Hockey Day In Michigan, Hockey Is Fun clinic (see Page 44).
(Fun & Interesting Facts About Affiliate) Michigan has one of the largest amateur hockey leagues in the country (Little Caesars Amateur Hockey League) and the largest Tier I AAA Hockey league (Midwest Elite Hockey League).
Famous Alumni: Mike Modano (all-time leading U.S. goal scorer), Tom Anastos (former NHL player and current commissioner of the CCHA), Mark Wells (1980 U.S. Olympic Team), Brian Rafalski (New Jersey Devils), Shelley Looney (two-time U.S. Olympian), Angela Ruggiero (three-time U.S. Olympian) and many more.
Photos by Dave Reginek