There are two things you’re sure to find when you enter the front door of the Cool Sports Icearium rink in Knoxville, Tenn. One is the color orange of the hometown University of Tennessee Volunteers. The other is the smiling face of KJ Voorhees.
As a hockey director in a non-traditional market, Voorhees has settled into his role by remembering one simple but important fact of life in hockey – no program can be successful without the human element of the game. That’s why Voorhees, a self-proclaimed “salesman for the game,” goes out of his way to make sure first-time players and their parents feel welcome when they enter the foreign world of an ice rink.
“I try to welcome every kid through the door with a high five or a hug, just so that the first thing that happens when they come through the door brings a smile,” Voorhees says.
“I love interacting with the kids and the parents. It’s fun for me because I can talk hockey all day, and I think it makes them feel welcome here at the rink.”
People who grew up in a rink and learned to love the game at an early age sometimes take things for granted that seem so foreign to families trying hockey for the first time. That’s why Voorhees and his staff are never far away to answer questions from how to put on the equipment to how to sign up for a house league.
Voorhees grew up playing hockey in the Seattle area before moving away with his brother, Brent, to play for the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League. From there he caught the eye of the coaching staff from Colorado College, where his four-year career included three NCAA tournament berths and one Frozen Four appearance.
After two seasons in Sweden and several stops on the minor league circuit, Voorhees settled in Knoxville, where he took a shine to the southern style of living during his four years with the Ice Bears.
“Things in the south are a little bit different. They talk a little different, and they do things at their pace more than the west coast or east coast lifestyle. But I enjoy it. I’ve been here for eight and a half years for a reason,” says the Lake Stevens, Wash., native.
Knoxville is a hidden gem in the hockey world. Professional hockey came to town in 1961 and has put down roots in one form or another for half a century. Over the years several teams and professional leagues have set up shop in eastern Tennessee, but through it all youth hockey has worked hard to maintain a toe hold in a town know more for SEC football and high school basketball.
“Down here there’s the mentality that if you’re a good athlete that you’re going to play football, or you’re going to play baseball or basketball,” Voorhees says. “As far as getting the top-level athletes, it’s a bit of a struggle for us because if you are a good athlete you’re probably being recruited to play these other sports.”
The ranks of youth hockey in Knoxville runs upwards of 350 kids a season, starting with a Learn to Play program and Mite house league up through a four-team high school program. Local travel teams compete in the Southern Youth Travel Hockey League against the likes of teams from Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville and Huntsville, Ala.
Embracing USA Hockey programs has made life a lot easier because keeping costs down and the fun level high has made hockey an enticing sport for curious parents and kids.
From purchasing bags of OneGoal equipment to embracing cross-ice hockey and the principles of the American Development Model, Knoxville hockey has grown its ranks by working with USA Hockey to open its doors to those who otherwise wouldn’t give the sport a try.
“For the past year we have run a Try Hockey For Free program every eight weeks, and it has been such a huge success,” Voorhees says. “On average we have between 15 and 20 kids every time we do it. About a third to a half of those kids sign up for our program within the following couple of weeks.
“Those are numbers that we probably wouldn’t have had if we didn’t take the initiative and purchase OneGoal equipment. Now we’re able to offer a Try Hockey For Free program whenever we want, so that has really helped our numbers increase drastically.”
The success of their local programs doesn’t come without a price. The Icearium is a single-sheet facility, and juggling schedules for house leagues, travel teams, tournaments, public skating sessions and late-night adult games is no small feat.
“We are slammed,” Voorhees admits. “Scheduling can get quite hairy at times. I would love to have a second sheet. But we do the best that we can, and we certainly don’t want to price any of our families out of this great game.”
The combination of familiar faces and new families is what keeps Voorhees coming back to the rink day after day, week after week. His day, admittedly, gets better once 5 o’clock rolls around and he shifts from his computer and desk work to working with teams on the ice.
“The best part about my job is definitely the kids,” he says. “It’s such a joy to see the smiles on their faces.”