Approximately five years ago, the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association skated onto a rough patch of ice.
“We were stagnant and were losing numbers,” BYHA vice president Kevin Waldhausen said. “But in the last five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in numbers. Five years ago we implemented a try hockey for free for one year at any age level. It was a huge success.
“My son started hockey at 9. We wavered back and forth because we weren’t sure if our child would like the sport. But it was just what we needed to give our son the push to play. If you get a kid on the ice, he’s going to love it for a lifetime.”
That wasn’t the only reason why the BYHA was able to turn a decline in numbers into an increase in boys who registered to play with the northern Minnesota association.
“We have a big basket of techniques, including try hockey for free,” said Waldhausen.
For example, the BYHA connected with the Gear Up Minnesota program, which grants sets of starter hockey equipment to deserving hockey associations via an application process. The goal of the program is to grow the game at the grassroots level by making hockey as affordable as possible.
“Gear Up Minnesota has provided us with gear for young skaters [5- to 7-year olds],” Waldenhausen said. “We’ve acquired 40 sets of gear.
“The first-year skaters are given the gear and return it at the end of the year. We have gear, minus skates and sticks, which reduces costs.”
In addition, the Bemidji Old Timers Hockey Group has played a vital role by annually donating $2,000 to the BYHA.
“This group has been making donations for several years,” Waldhausen said. “It’s a 50-and-older club. They host a tournament in Bemidji, and the proceeds are donated to youth hockey for scholarships and equipment.
“It’s been a very generous and vital part of our association.”
Another factor is Bemidji State University, which plays in the WCHA and is affiliated with the BYHA.
“We have a Division I college, and we get tons of support from Bemidji State, which helps us increase our numbers,” Waldhausen said. “The Beavers host ‘Skate with the Beavers’ after one of their games. They’re very active with our program. Our 6- to 10-year olds can hang out and talk to their on-ice heroes at that level.
“Since we have a Division I program, many of our coaches (who at one time played for Bemidji State) stick around. Our quality of coaching is a bonus for our association.”
The BYHA’s home base, the Bemidji Community Arena, is a high-end venue.
“Bemidji is a town with a population of around 13,000. We have four indoor sheets of ice with one having ice 365 days a year," said Waldhausen.
“We have a plethora of ice and we want more.”
Since 1988, the BYHA has hosted the Paul Bunyan International Hockey Tournament, which is geared toward peewees.
“It’s a 16-team tournament, but we want to make sure it’s not all Minnesota teams,” Waldhausen said. “We have teams from Michigan and Canada. In the past, we’ve had teams from Russia. If you come, you’re going to have excellent competition. NCAA Division I players and NHL players have played in this tournament.
“We host opening ceremonies that emulate the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. Players skate out with their teams. The players’ names are called out until all 16 teams are on the ice. We assign one of our squirt members to stay with that team throughout the tournament. We have a host player and family for every team in the tournament. They serve as their escort around town.”
Add all this up and it’s easy to see why the BYHA this season was able to suit up the following teams: Bantam AA, Bantam Blue and White, Peewee AA and Peewee B, Termites, Mite 1 and 2, Mite 1 Blue and White, Mite 2 Blue and White plus 12-Under and 10-Under.
And to say Bemidji High School receives a major boost from the BYHA would be an understatement.
“Playing high school hockey is a very big deal,” Waldhausen said. “We’re a feeder program for the high school team. All of our kids strive to play for their high school.
“It goes without saying hockey is a culture in our community.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.