Help wanted: Passionate hockey person to fill vital role within the local youth hockey organization. Must be a high-energy people person with a wide range of skills, including a love of the game, strong instructional skills and the ability to work well with both kids and parents. Excellent organizational and communication skills, patience and the ability to create a fun learning environment are also a must.
More than any coach or administrator, any fund-raising guru or Zamboni driver, the most important person within any youth hockey organization is the hockey director.
Part administrator, part coach and part teacher, a hockey director does more than just chart the course for a local organization. He or she shapes a young player’s first hockey experience by creating an environment where fun and fundamentals keep kids and their parents coming back year after year.
And now more than ever, with the need to grow the game at the youngest levels, the position has taken on even more importance.
“Teaching new players the game and mentoring the coaches is a big part of the job,” said Keith Andresen, who as director of Ice Scheduling and Hockey Programs for the Dr Pepper Star Centers oversees the hockey directors at his company’s seven arenas in the Dallas area.
“But there is also the administrative duties and public relations skills you need to deal with parents, coaches of youth teams and adult players. It’s an amazing skill set.”
For former college and professional players, becoming a hockey director seems like a great way to get into the business side of the game. But as many quickly learn, the on-ice part of the job could be the least important facet of their responsibilities.
“Having the ability to relate to customers is far more important than whether or not they played pro or Div. I college hockey,” said Andresen.
“The ex-players know the game but they don’t always have the business side of things. And it’s a business. They’re registering players, collecting money, scheduling ice time and referees, buying jerseys and socks and making sure all of the house league teams have coaches and that the adult leagues have enough ice to play their games. It gets crazy at times, especially at this time of the year.”
Those organizational skills are important because parents, even new-to-hockey parents, can tell in the first five minutes of registration or check-in if things are going smoothly or not.
“If people come to the rink and they are not told where to go, their jerseys are not there for the first game or the referees don’t show up or the locker room assignments are messed up, they are going to think ‘oh, boy, these people don’t know what’s going on’ and they’re not going to cut you any slack on any issues that come up later,” said Andresen.
“But if you’re organized, the jerseys are ready for the kids, the ice time is set up, the referees are there and the teams are there, if there is a mishap down the road they are going to say, ‘that’s a hiccup, no big deal.’ ”
And because the players and parents are new to the game, selecting coaches who are good teachers and will help create a positive experience – and then giving them direction and support – is a critical task for a hockey director.
“We look at coaches as partners in our company, and they need continual training and a game plan,” said Randy Jordan, the hockey director and manager of ice operations for Hoffman Estates (Ill.) Parks and Recreation arena. “So we have a lot of meetings and we get out on the ice to help them learn.”
Growing The Base
In today’s tough economic climate, youth hockey programs can’t just sit back and wait to see how many players sign up to participate. Instead, hockey directors are finding out that they need to offer customers options to try the game that they almost can’t refuse.
“You have to drive it,” said Jordan. “You have to try to ease the barrier to entry into the game and take away any objections.”
Four years ago, the Hoffman Estates program had just 10 kids register for its programs.
“That opened our eyes,” said Jordan. “People just don’t walk in off the street and you form a league overnight.”
" You want to
So Jordan got aggressive. He believed the Park District youth hockey program was missing out on a large number of kids who played soccer or football until November, so they designed a “Superflex Development” beginner program with late afternoon ice times three times a week at an attractive price.
He marketed the Parks and Rec hockey program at area schools and had a booth at the Chicago Blackhawks summer fan fest that drew more than 10,000 fans.
“We thought that there were a lot of kids who would love to try the game but were playing other sports in the fall,” Jordan said. “Now we’re able to give kids great flexibility, great teaching and a great way to start the game and still do other sports that they want to play.”
Superflex Development participants can skate in all three sessions during the week or come to one and then miss the next one. The hourlong ice time includes a strong base of fundamentals and lots of fun time.
“The kids are fully engaged and the beauty of it is if you miss Tuesday we’re going to be fairly repetitive with what we do, so come Saturday you’re not going to be behind and not want to come back,” said Jordan.
Enrollment in the program is up 500 percent from last season and their retention rate is “unbelievable.”
“We’re getting calls from all over because they’ve heard that this is the way to go,” said Jordan. “The kids get a love for the game, they progress quickly because they are on the ice so much and it’s without pressure and any talk about winning or losing. It’s been great.”
Impacting the game
Getting young players involved in the game and watching them have fun and want to come back is why hockey directors come to the rink everyday.
“I want to see kids enjoying the game, so we keep things fun,” said Jamie Black, a former veteran minor pro player who is the hockey director at Extreme Ice in Charlotte (N.C.).
“You want to give them the fundamentals and instill in them the love of the game because their experience when they are young is so important. If they have a bad experience right off the hop its tough to bring them back.
“When I see a tie score in a game that’s the best score for a hockey director. Because you try to balance things out and you hate to see a team blown out. You want to see a good game and everyone coming off happy.”