One night in 2011, Knoxville Amateur Hockey Association House Program Director Tom O’Brian and coach Randy Wolfenbarger were “kicking around” ideas about doing something different for the boys in KAHA.
The end result was Hockey Night in Knoxville, an event that was held for the second time on Feb. 9 at the Icearium in West Knoxville.
“We started thinking it would be nice to give the kids a different experience, like skating out under spotlights,” O’Brian said. “We were trying to give the kids an NHL experience.
“We’re in a small rink and we’re not in a hotbed of hockey.”
The first Hockey Night in 2012 was an unqualified success with over 1,200 people in attendance. What made the second annual Hockey Night in Knoxville even more special was the fact it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the association.
“[Hockey Night] was a big part of our celebration,” O’Brian said. “Nobody would ever think hockey would be in east Tennessee for 50 years. Everybody is shocked when they know we’ve been around for 50 years. We’ve even had kids who’ve gone on to become coaches.
“Compared with Boston and Buffalo, it’s an accomplishment. The fact that we’ve had volunteers who built this program and kept it alive is a great testament to the game and our program.”
The goal of Hockey Night in Knoxville, which features a series of fast-paced games, is to continue to drive awareness of the KAHA programs, to encourage membership, to recognize players’ achievements and to celebrate passion for the sport of ice hockey.
“It’s about keeping our player retention high,” O’Brian said.
Admission is free, but the association prints tickets that their players distribute to their friends at school and in their respective neighborhoods.
“It’s a way for them to say, ‘We play hockey so come and watch us,’” O’Brian said.
When players walk into their locker room, one of the first things they see is a magnetic strip on each locker, which includes the player’s number.
Players also receive a “goodie bag” that contains a towel with the KAHA logo, a sticker for their helmets and assorted hockey-related items donated by USA Hockey.
“USA Hockey sent different things that helped make the night a success,” O’Brian said. “Our local Pepsi company distributed Gatorade bottles that were just like the ones NHL players get.
“Then, the players skated out from the bench and were introduced. The national anthem was played before each game.”
Hockey Night consists of one Mite game, two Squirt games and three Peewee/Bantam games.
“Our youngest kids play cross-ice games, which are part of USA Hockey’s American Development Model,” O’Brian said. “The only variation we made for Hockey Night was that, while our Mite players use [cross-ice] during the regular season, this night we play a full-ice game just to let them have this experience. But normally they do play cross-ice games.
“We do everything we can to attract players. It’s easy for kids to dribble a soccer ball and a basketball. But hockey’s a different game. Different skill sets are involved. Kids have to learn stick handling and shooting. Our kids know they’re playing a different sport and it brings a cool camaraderie.”
Hockey Night in Knoxville also involves a “fashion statement.”
“Both years we asked our coaches to dress in a coat and tie and all of them complied,” O’Brian said. “This year we asked our kids to dress like that and they did. Almost all of them came in with this look of excitement on their faces, especially our Mite level kids who knew they were coming in to play a game on that night.
“Our volunteer staff put nice touches in the lobby which was decorated. And there was that anticipation in the locker room … the overall excitement of the kids.”
Not surprisingly, everything that’s gone into making Hockey Night in Knoxville a success didn’t happen in an eye blink.
“There were months of work that went into this and, eventually, the games could be played,” O’Brian said. “I’m blessed with people in our program that put in the time and effort. And I can’t say enough about our hockey director, K.J. Voorhees. For every kid who comes through our program, this could be the first time they’ve played hockey and they think K.J. is their best friend.
“As for me, the satisfaction came from seeing the puck drop, because then the work was done and we could sit back and watch the games.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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