Royal Treatment

When It Comes To Welcoming Kids Into The Game, The LA Kings Roll Out The Red Carpet

Leave it to the Los Angeles Kings to stage a Hollywoodesque premier to welcome the next generation of young hockey players into the game. 

Each summer the Kings roll out the red carpet at the Regal Theatre in downtown LA to celebrate the newest class of graduates of its Lil' Kings program, an intensive and extensive emersion into the great game that has taken southern California by storm. 

The celebration includes giveaways, raffle prizes and tickets to a preseason game. More important, perhaps, each  Lil' Kings player and his or her parent are given a roadmap to what's next in their budding hockey careers.

It's a part of the NHL's Industry Growth Fund, a collaborative effort between the league and the Players' Association to open the game up to future generations of players and fans.

"The Kings do a great job of giving kids a solid foundation in the game," said Matt Herr, the NHL's youth hockey regional director. "What I really like is how they pull out all the stops with their graduation ceremony. It really gets these families excited about what's to come."

Last year the Kings had more the 1,000 kids ages 5 to 9 years old go through the Lil' Kings program. From there they are funneled into local house leagues at one of 13 rinks around the Los Angeles area, from Santa Barbara and Bakersfield to the north all the way down to Orange County, where the Anaheim Ducks have planted their flag. 

This year's registration is off to a solid start with more than 500 kids registered in the first few weeks. 

It starts with the Lil' Kings Learn to Play program, which includes six on-ice sessions and head-to-toe CCM hockey gear for $175. From there it's onto the eight-week Lil' Kings Academy where players continue to work on their skills as they learn the basic rules of the game. Then it's onto a four-week cross-ice league where they put those new skills and knowledge to the test.

From there the Kings work with their local rink partners to get these kids playing in a local in-house program. 

"We get them started for the first couple months and the rinks take over from there," said Cody von Rueden, coordinator of the Lil Kings program.

Eventually players are funneled into the Junior Kings and LA Lions girls program. There is also a high school league that includes eight varsity and nine junior varsity teams. 

While the on-ice rivalry between the Ducks and Kings is as fierce as any in the NHL, both organizations have a solid working relationship when it comes to getting more southern Californian kids into the game. 

"Hockey has just grown dramatically here in California, especially here in the south, and the Ducks and Kings are a huge part of that," von Rueden said. "So it's great to work together despite the rivalry on the ice, we're all here to grow the game for the right reasons."

That growth didn't happen by accident. The Lil' Kings program is a comprehensive pathway into the game that has the support at all levels of the organization.

"I started when I was 4," said team president Luc Robitaille,  who spent three stints with the Kings over the course of a 19-year NHL career. "A lot of these kids are 4 and 5 years old. Just the feeling of gliding on the ice, there's nothing like it. It's so special. Watching them out there ... they've already learned the skills so much, it doesn't surprise me but it's always so much fun to see." 




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