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Hastings Hockey Association partners with the Wild to grow the game

Volunteers lead young skaters through a variety of stations during the fourth week of the "Learn to Skate" program. Alec Hamilton / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Young players practice puck handling with rings. Alec Hamilton / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

This past September, the Hastings Hockey Association partnered with the Minnesota Wild to be one of 20 sites to host the Wild's "Little Wild Learn to Play" program. The program's aim is to grow the game of hockey throughout the state of Minnesota and help dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about getting involved with hockey.

The "Learn to Play" program targets first-time hockey players between the ages of 5-to-8 years old who have never played organized hockey or been a part of the Little Wild before. For $125 participants received four one-hour lessons on ice, free head-to-toe equipment including skates, helmet and a bag; and a ticket to a Wild pre-season game. The association members paid for the ice time and Hastings girls' hockey head coach Josh Colvin said they could not have done it without his fellow coaches, players and even community members volunteering.

Dustin Vogelgesang, head coach of the East Ridge boys' hockey team and the liaison in charge of the Hastings site, said the program is proof of the Wild's commitment to grassroots hockey in Minnesota.

"It actually began, I think, five years ago," he said. "The Wild were always trying to do some kind of grassroots project. They saw the importance of the 'State of Hockey' and the grassroots level. They started with one, maybe two locations, I helped out with the one in Highland Park."

This year the program was held in 20 different locations across the state, with Hastings one of the new locations for 2018. Approximately 60 kids from Hastings and the surrounding area participated in the four, hour-long sessions in September. Colvin said that the "Learn to Play" program allows them to get in front of kids and their parents and really promote the sport of hockey, address any fears or misconceptions and ultimately get more kids to give the sport a try.

"That's the hope, I think it's a great thing by the Wild," he said. "We talk about trying to grow the game, in Minnesota we think hockey is kind of huge, which it is for us, but even within Minnesota there's more kids who play other sports. There's more kids who play volleyball, they're more kids who play basketball than hockey. So we still have a lot of work to do to grow the game."

Colvin said that hockey is one of the few sports where cost is a concern of parents even at the youth level.

"So one of the concerns is cost of entry," he said. "If a kid wants to try basketball, you buy them a ball and a pair of tennis shoes and if they don't like it, alright. But there's this fear that hockey has this huge barrier to entry. And the Wild allows parents to come in at a really, really low cost point and (the kids) learn a skill and have a good time. And unfortunately, hockey has the misconception that if you don't start by 4-years-old, you can't catch up, which isn't true."

Vogelgesang echoed Colvin's comments, but said that once they can expose kids to hockey, there's a really good chance they will love it and stick with it.

"It's like a lot of other things, right? If you get the kids to try it, they fall in love with it," he said. "The more kids you can get to try it and come out here and show that there's avenues for families who think it's expensive, that it's not. I think the expense and time are the two biggest components that people are scared of for hockey at times. So if we can have programs to help those people and also show them the way, once a kid starts playing it's hard for them to stop, it's hard for a parent to say no."

Vogelgesang said that they worked on the basics every week with the kids as for most this was their first time learning hockey skills. They worked on essential skills like skating, puck handling and passing. They also mixed in some more fun stations, including playing tag, shooting into the net and celebrating their scores and relay races pushing pads across the ice.

Colvin said that the HHA will continue to be a part of the Wild's "Learn to Play" program and be a site which hosts, which Vogelgesang praised while saying that is one of the biggest challenges the "Learn to Play" program faces.

"I think the biggest thing, the most difficult thing is for them to find coaches to run it," Vogelgesang said. "I had the experience of doing it in the past, but this is the first time I've ran a location. And you can't do it without communities like Hastings that ... want to come out and help, and the high school coaches and their players. If you didn't have those people donating their time and seeing the importance of it, then you couldn't run it. Hats off to the Hastings association and both the boys and girls coaching staffs and their players."

The HHA also had their annual "Bring a Friend to Skate" party at the end of September after the last session of the "Learn to Play" program, which is their own way of trying to boost participation that was started years ago by former coaches Jeff Corkish and Steve Benson.

"So what it is, we encourage all our kids in the association to invite their friends out," he said. "And then we give away tickets to the Gophers, we give away tickets to the girls side, we're doing the NWHL (National Women's Hockey League), I have season tickets so we're giving those away to the girls."

From there, he also said that they give incentives like the "Learn to Play" program to lower that barrier to entry mentioned before. Equipment is provided for free to all first-time askers and all learn "Learn to Skate" players no matter their age, as long as they can and depending on size, and that the "Learn to Skate" program is completely free.

"So again, for parents who are going 'I'd love my kid to maybe try it but I don't want to spend all this money and then they hate it'," Colvin said. "You don't have to, it's free to learn and it's 100 percent free equipment and we just try to get as many kids out."

They also hold a second "Bring a Friend to Skate" event later in the winter. Colvin finished by saying that he hopes the Wild's "Learn to Play" program continues to expand so that it frees up spots for even more kids to get involved in the future.

Alec Hamilton

Alec Hamilton is a RiverTown Multimedia sports reporter covering Hastings, Farmington and Rosemount athletics. He graduated from Drake University with a journalism degree in 2014. 

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