As part of the 10th annual Hockey Weekend Across America, which has morphed into Hockey Week Across America, we are bringing you a series of features surrounding the celebration of players, coaches, officials, rinks and the many volunteers who make our sport great.
It’s been nine years since USA Hockey first started coordinating a Try Hockey For Free event in February in a few different areas, and seven years since it was expanded into a national initiative. Over the years, the annual event has grown significantly, enjoying tremendous success in introducing thousands of new kids to the sport, both as participants and as fans.
Pat Kelleher, in his role as assistant executive director of development for USA Hockey, has been instrumental in the process of implementing and expanding the impact and the scope of Try Hockey For Free, and tying it in with Hockey Weekend, and this year, from Feb. 19-26, Hockey Week Across America celebrations. As this year’s edition gets underway, Kelleher shared his thoughts on the evolution of the program and its accomplishments.
Q: What is your overall assessment of the Try Hockey For Free program?
PK: It’s been very successful in introducing kids to the game. We do it twice in a year, once in November, kind of a fall kick-off time frame, and once during Hockey Weekend Across America. The one in February, during Hockey Weekend, has been great for us because it’s the heart of hockey season. In the youth hockey world, we’re getting close to the end of the season. Meanwhile, the NHL and NCAA are both starting to talk about playoffs. The celebration we get from across the country in the NHL and all our other supporters across Hockey Weekend, it really brings a nice spotlight to the game. People are talking about hockey, so it’s a great time to connect with families and kids who may not have gotten into hockey before, to get them a chance to get out on the ice and try it out
Q: How and when did the program get started?
PK: My position was created in 2008, so we really started right around that time doing statewide initiatives. We did a Hockey Day in Colorado, a Hockey Day in Massachusetts — we kind of picked places to focus on. We did it in a statewide initiative or a regional initiative for a couple of years. And as we looked at it, it was, ‘Okay, if we can leverage this and get everyone on board across the country, and grow the numbers of host sites and locations, then we really could put a stamp on this as an annual event for USA Hockey and all of our local associations to attract new families to the game.’ And fortunately, that’s really how it’s evolved. February 2010 was really the first Try Hockey For Free day as part of Hockey Weekend Across America and it was right before the 2010 Olympics, so we were able to jump on the Olympic enthusiasm. We had about 130 sites that hosted Try Hockey For Free and we had just about 3,000 kids that tried hockey during that event.
We did it again in 2011, and in 2011, we also introduced in November a second national Try Hockey For Free Day. In 2014, we had 400 host sites and nearly 16,000 that tried hockey during that event. So growing the locations, and for us, connecting these events in and around the Olympic events, has been significant for us. We’ve maintained 350 or so sites every year for Try Hockey For Free during Hockey Weekend, we’ll average 30-38 kids per site, so we’re looking at, depending on the overall numbers, 12-15,000 kids that are introduced to hockey at this time of year. And really, we’ve made a lot of incremental improvements in the things that we do, but it’s become a truly national event. Now, they’ve become two days, two events that are on the calendar on an annual basis. Our youth associations understand those dates and plan around them, the NHL, the NHL clubs – it’s really grown into a great platform to really help us try and grow the game.
There’s really two parts to it — trying to grow participation, which is ultimately what USA Hockey wants to do, we want to get more kids playing the game, but number two, we know that it goes a long way towards developing fans of the game — those that maybe can’t get into the game as a participant, for whatever reason or circumstance, but they can become a fan of hockey and really enjoy being connected to our game.
Q: Do you have an idea of how many kids that come to Try Hockey For Free come back and play?
PK: We see that about 30 percent come back to join USA Hockey, which we’re certainly pleased with. Again, there’s a lot that goes into the grassroots level, so this is just one piece of the puzzle. A lot of our programs do a wonderful job of, once they get these kids into a Try Hockey, to really create more activities and events for them to join youth hockey, and I think one of the big things in the whole evolution of this is, within USA Hockey, our whole American Development Model (ADM), has really promoted at the 8-and-under age group level half-ice and cross-ice hockey for all these kids. That allows programs to have more kids join, and it also allows families to join youth hockey, usually at a very reasonable cost level and a very reasonable commitment level.
Q: What else do you want people to know about how Try Hockey For Free has evolved?
PK: To me, two things are important. We learned a lot and really took this thing from a regional approach to national, and now, people are really on board with it twice a year, especially during Hockey Weekend. And the second thing is, while we coordinate a lot from the USA Hockey level, ultimately, USA Hockey, our whole structure relies on the grassroots volunteer, the people that are in each community. They’re the ones that deliver the experience. The coaches that are on the ice with these kids at a Try Hockey For Free event, they’re the ones that are really doing the work to help us grow, helping the kids fall in love with the game and help families become excited to be part of our organization.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
|Sunday, Feb. 19||NBC's Hockey Day in America|
|Monday, Feb. 20||Salute to Players|
|Tuesday, Feb. 21||Salute to Coaches|
|Wednesday, Feb. 22||Salute to Officials|
|Thursday, Feb. 23||Salute to Local Rinks|
|Friday, Feb. 24||Wear Your Favorite Jersey Day|
|Saturday, Feb. 25||Try Hockey Day|
|Sunday, Feb. 26||Celebrate Hockey Heroes|
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