5 For Fun

Iowa Sisters Give Hockey A Try And Never Look Back

Sarah Ussery and her husband, Darrel, spent the winter of 2015-16 cooped up in their Estherville, Iowa, home with five young daughters who had plenty of energy to burn.

The couple considered themselves hockey fans, so an advertisement for a "Try Hockey for Free Day" at a rink 20 minutes down the road seemed like a perfect outlet for their daughters, who were all under the age of 12. 

"During the winter months, you're always looking for activities for your kids to do, because they get a little pent up in the house, and you definitely don't want them to be pent up," Sarah Ussery said with a laugh. "We had just had another baby not too long before that, so the kids were home a little more than usual. That kind of made it even more important to get the kids involved in something."

The "Try Hockey for Free Day" has turned into one of USA Hockey's most valuable initiatives in terms of growing the game at the grassroots level. Last winter, nearly 500 host arenas in 47 states introduced more than 13,000 children to the game by lending them equipment while certified coaches contributed instruction and encouragement. 

No longer do parents have to worry about spending money on league fees and equipment, only to have their children decide the sport isn't for them.

"We really didn't have anything to lose. If the kids tried it and didn't like it, there was no commitment. No big deal," mom said.

The Ussery's four middle children-Liliana (now 11), Scarletta (9), Rayvena (8) and Azariya (6)-liked the idea of hitting the ice at the Boji Bay Ice Arena in Spirit Lake, Iowa, in the spring of 2016.

"My dad watched hockey on TV a lot, and it seemed like a fun sport," Liliana said. "I knew how to roller skate, and I like to roller skate, so I wanted to try it on the ice. The first time we played, I learned that you have to try hard at the sport to get good at it, but it was a lot of fun."

It didn't take long for sister, Scarletta, to get on board as well.

"At first, when I saw people playing it, I thought, 'That looks super fun,'" she  recalled. "Then, when my mom told me they were having this hockey thing, I told her, 'I NEED to do this.' I liked everything about it. It's just super fun."

But the oldest Ussery sister, Jadelyn, passed on the opportunity at first ... and eventually regretted her decision.

"I saw how much fun my sisters were having at it, so I figured, 'Why not give it a try?'" said Jadelyn, now 13. "When they came back from it, they were all like, 'This is a really fun thing to do. Come on, and play.' I was like, 'Fine, I'll try it.' When I did, I actually got a chance to play goalie, which was really cool.

"I'm really glad I did. It's just kind of the thrill of the game. You have to work hard to really achieve what you want to do, but you also have a lot of fun doing it." 

The Ussery sisters' involvement in hockey certainly solved the issue of being couped up at home. Jadelyn and Liliana skated on the same team, while Scarletta, Rayvena and Azariya competed at the younger levels.

All of the sisters practiced three times per week and averaged playing one game per week. That meant a lot of back-and-forth trips between Estherville and Spirit Lake.

"It was pretty hectic and crazy, getting them all to practice and everything," mom said. "But it was something all of them enjoyed, which made it worth it."

Hosting "Try Hockey for Free Days" has been a boon for the Lakes Area Hockey Association, which is as about as grassroots as grassroots hockey can get.

Mitch Brandt, a transplant from Roseau, Minn., founded the association 15 years ago on outdoor natural ice, and the community committed to an indoor facility five years ago. 

The association draws from several small communities and school districts in the northwest corner of Iowa. The girls program includes two dozen skaters of varying ages.

"Try Hockey for Free is just an amazing program," said Tracey Oleson, the girls' program director and coach for the association. "We're not in a very hockey-strong area, and we don't have a lot of tradition in the sport. So, we need a vehicle like that to bring people in and just let them try it with no strings attached. 

"It's been great, especially for our girls' program. The people we attract usually have some sort of connection to the sport-maybe a dad played, or they moved here from a place that has hockey. But it's always nice to have something to give those people with no connection to the sport an opportunity to do it."




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