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Free Ice Time, Read All About It

By Nate Repensky, SportsEngine, 02/16/19, 12:30PM CST

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On Saturday, February 23, parents all across the United States have the opportunity to watch their kids “take their second first steps.”

Saturday marks the sixth day of Hockey Week Across America, an annual celebration for the last twelve years. The week, aimed toward celebrating the hockey community and engaging new coaches, players, officials, and fans begins on Sunday, February 17. It’s highlighted by Try Hockey for Free day—an event allowing children to strap on hockey gear and glide on rinks across America for the first time. The event is free of charge with no experience required.

History

Try Hockey for Free day was created 10 years ago and includes two yearly sessions—one in November and one in February that coincides with Hockey Week Across America. Try Hockey for Free day’s mission is to negate the upfront gear and ice time investment that has prevented kids from trying hockey in the past.

“Try Hockey for Free day started a decade ago as we were trying to grow the game,” USA Hockey’s Director of Membership Development, Kevin Erlenbach said.

“As we dug deeper to see why families left or weren’t playing hockey, we found some of it had to do with upfront cost and commitment, and we’ve aimed to design a program to alleviate that. Ten years ago, people would want to play hockey and then would have to get all of the gear and pay for a 12-week program. With this event, they no longer have to do that.”

In year one, Try Hockey for Free day debuted in just a single location in Denver. On Saturday, 350 organizations across the United States will host events. These include traditional hockey markets like Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts, as well as emerging hockey hotbeds like California and Washington. Following Try Hockey for Free day’s kickoff in 2009, USA Hockey has relied on efforts from local hockey organizations to grow the event.

Erlenbach and his team field applications from prospective host sites who are then required to go through an online training seminar. Following training, organizations are provided guidelines and marketing materials from USA Hockey and then engage their own local volunteers to run the event, resulting in regional flavor.

8U Arvada Clinic

“I believe you get families that would never have thought to bring their kid out on the ice—we hear that all the time from parents,” Benson-Dunn said. “Hockey is a family sport and a great experience for all kids to be involved in. I’m so happy we’re seeing increased participation.”

The week begins on Sunday with Hockey Day in America, featuring a contentious rivalry game between the Canadian and United States’ Women’s teams in Detroit. It also includes four NHL contests broadcast on NBC. The week is concluded on the following Sunday with a celebration of local hockey heroes who go above and beyond in their community. In between each bookend, every day of the week has a specific focus.

“This is a fully grassroots campaign,” Erlenbach said. “We don’t invest in paid advertising, it’s all done locally. We found one group in Missouri that made valentines cards for kids to distribute at school to advertise the event. We loved that idea and now we distribute these cards to each organization. We even had an organization in Wisconsin bring out recliners for parents to sit in as they watched. The local ideas are really special.”

Valentine 1
Valentine 2
Valentine 3

As a result of unique volunteer efforts, Try Hockey for Free day’s participation numbers have skyrocketed. The first year of nationwide hosting attracted 2,500 kids. Since then, more than 186,000 youngsters have been able to test their balance on the ice. This year, Erlenbach anticipates that 10,000 will show up on February 23 alone.

Golden Participation

One of the largest geographical growth rates exists in California—a state not regarded for its hockey origins. Erlenbach estimates that The Golden State has seen a 575% increase in player participation in the last five years—partially a result of Try Hockey for Free day.

Alec Benson-Dunn, Director of Hockey for the California Heat, has observed that growth first hand in the three years the organization has been participating in Try Hockey for Free day. Kids ages four to 12 now regularly attend the California Heat’s sessions.

“A lot of times the participants will come in and it’s the first time they’ve skated, so you might not see a number increase right away,” Benson-Dunn said. “But we’ve started to see the fruits from Try Hockey for Free day from a year or two ago. Last year in February, we had more than 80 kids come to try hockey, and now more than a quarter of them are in our organization.”

Benson-Dunn was quick to reference the importance of subsequent programs to follow Try Hockey for Free day that teach kids how to skate and play the game—an initiative also underlined by Erlenbach and USA Hockey.

USA Hockey requires participating organizations to establish these programs, giving prospective players an option to hone their skills soon after Try Hockey for Free day. The National Hockey League and its Players Association has even gotten involved. In their home cities, each NHL franchise sponsors a Learn to Play program, which provides players with a full set of gear to use free of charge.

“We’ve really learned the importance of a transition program,” Benson-Dunn said. “We now have a learn to skate program for kids after Try Hockey for Free day. It’s at a cheaper cost and allows kids to learn the skills needed to actually play hockey. Typically, the program is four to eight weeks long and is a great way for families to ease into hockey.”

Benson-Dunn and the California Heat have injected their own local flare through a partnership with Hockey Monkey—a California-based gear provider. Each participant who decides to try hockey with the California Heat receives discount certificates to Hockey Monkey’s store in an effort to lessen the financial burden on families who do end up purchasing equipment.

With three years passed, Benson-Dunn believes that Try Hockey for Free day has brought a whole new subset of families to his organization.

“I believe you get families that would never have thought to bring their kid out on the ice—we hear that all the time from parents,” Benson-Dunn said. “Hockey is a family sport and a great experience for all kids to be involved in. I’m so happy we’re seeing increased participation.”

A Week of Festivities

In conjunction with Try Hockey for Free day, Hockey Week Across America includes seven days worth of hockey happenings overseen by USA Hockey’s Senior Director of Communications, Dave Fischer.

Fischer and USA Hockey sought to create an event to celebrate the game and its participants, as well as to attract new interest. They believe they found a solution in Hockey Week Across America.

In terms of attracting a new audience, an endeavor USA Hockey and the NHL have been particularly successful at in recent years, Fischer sees Try Hockey for Free day as a perfect vehicle, and now a hallmark of the week-long celebration.

“Try Hockey for Free day is a signature event of Hockey Week Across America,” Fischer said. “As we aspire to share the great benefits that our sport can bring to families across America, Try Hockey for Free day is very important.

“I’m proud to be part of USA Hockey because every day our team and board strive to do what’s best for kids, and it brings a smile to my face.”

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