At a time when families everywhere are being forced to tighten their belts, sending a child to the rink is a luxury that many can’t afford.
The Maine Hockey Group Ice Centre is making it possible for kids to get a taste of hockey without it taking a bite out of the family budget.
“The concept is to give everyone the opportunity to skate,” said Joakim Wahlstrom, general manager of the Saco, Maine-based rink.
The Centre is home to the Portland Junior Pirates and its Little Crackers skating program. This winter, MHG is offering all four of its Little Crackers programs – Learn to Skate for Tots, Learn to Skate for the Hockey Player, Learn to Play Hockey and Cross-ice Hockey – for free. Each program includes equipment rental.
The idea is the brainchild of MHG owner and Ice-Time Charitable Endowments co-founder Ron Cain, who believes in giving back to the community. Junior Pirates players regularly do service work and charity drives, learning values and contributing to their com- munity along the way.
“Both MHG and the Portland Junior Pirates are big on giving back to the community,” Wahlstrom said. “It seemed like the right place to start.”
The negative economy influenced the decision to make Little Crackers free this year, Cain said. It also gives parents a chance to see if their kids like hockey without incurring a large expense if they don’t.
With a nearly $20,000 grant from Ice-Time, MHG is able to offer four, six-week sessions at no cost.
“In a recession, it’s huge,” said Maryann Carroll, whose two daughters are enrolled in the Learn to Skate program. “There is a definite interest out there.”
That interest is apparent in the number of children enrolled in each of the programs for just the first quarter. Learn to Skate has welcomed 70 participants, while Learn to Play Hockey and Cross-Ice Hockey have between 50-60 participants each.
“There wouldn’t have been that many people [enrolled] if they weren’t supportive financially,” Carroll said.
Each of the programs normally carries a cost of $125 to $175 per session.
“I think it’s one of the nicest things, because you take away the cost-prohibitive factor,” said Jeanne Scheddel, whose son is a member of the Portland Junior Pirates Select Team.
Scheddel enrolled her son Daniel in the Little Crackers program after having less-than encouraging experiences with another program.
“Little Crackers flourished his love for hockey, because of the way they treat the kids,” Scheddel said.
“Their philosophy is to teach your child to love this game. If your child needs special encouragement, they see it and they do it.”
Two Plus Two Equals Growth
One step forward and two steps back is no way to grow membership.
That’s why USA Hockey’s new Membership Development department created a system that focuses on adding new players while keeping current players by tackling issues of growth and retention at the youngest age groups.
Statistics show that the number of children between the ages of 4 to 8 playing hockey has been shrinking. Over the last 10 years, acquisition of new players has dropped from 47,752 to 39,212. To add to the shrinking numbers, 43 percent of new players stop playing hockey by age 9, proving that retention is as important as recruitment.
“The biggest factors holding kids from playing our sport are cost and commitment,” said Pat Kelleher, assistant executive director for Membership Development. “The perception that the game is too expensive and too time consuming keeps kids from trying hockey, and the reality of it forces them to leave after a year or two.”
While tackling these issues will continue to be a top priority, Kelleher and his staff have created a new program that will provide modest benchmarks to youth hockey associations around the country.
The 2 & 2 National Challenge is a call to action for local associations to acquire two additional 4- to 8-year-old players than they did last year. The second half of the challenge is to improve the retention of two more 4- to 8-year-old players.
Based on 1,391 associations within USA Hockey, if two new players join each local program and two more players come back for another season of fun, there would be 96,755 players at the 4- to 8-year-old age group, or a 6.1 percent increase.
“We realize growing the game [by 6 percent] at the 4- to 8-year-old level is a lofty goal,” said Kelleher. “But when we talk to local associations about bringing in two new kids and keeping two more kids for the next season, it’s a more manageable and achievable goal.”