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Vipers Experience Rapid Growth in Orlando

By Mike Scandura - Special to USAHockey.com, 01/29/16, 10:30AM MST

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Youth association has grown from two to five teams in one year

When Shawn Ray was appointed director of hockey operations for the Kissimmee Vipers prior to the 2014-15 season, he saw several obstacles he had to overcome in order to grow the central Florida program.

What made it easier to clear those obstacles was the Vipers’ implementation of USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

“The kids love the action,” Ray said. “They’re smiling and enjoying it. When they enjoy it, they’re going to continue to play.”

With the exception of a couple of water breaks, the Vipers are on Kissimmee’s Ice Factory ice, in constant motion, for approximately one hour.

“They’re in skating drills where they work on starting and stopping, turning, crossovers and backwards skating,” Ray said. “That’s what we focus on for the first 30 minutes.

“For the second 30 minutes, we just drop a puck and let them be creative in small-area games.”

Reaching this point with the Vipers was anything but easy.

Prior to Ray’s appointment, the Vipers last season only had a single 12U A team, which was a mixture of 10U and 12U players, plus a 16U team.

This season, the Vipers field 10U A, 12U A, 12U AA, 14U, and 16U teams. Most of the players are boys, but there are also several girls.

“I took the opportunity to move into the Orlando area, which was a bigger hockey market,” Ray said. “The Kissimmee ownership group reached out to me because I’ve been involved with youth hockey for years.

“I wanted to build a spring program that included 10U, 12U, 14U, and 16U teams. From there, the main focus was to build up the Vipers with more teams. I wanted to get some good coaches and more players.”

In a short period of time, Ray was able to increase the number of teams from two to five.

“When they reached out to me in November of 2014, I was asked, ‘How can we run a program that will attract people?’” Ray said. “In the spring I offered programs for kids to come down and give it a try and see what’s going to be different.

“Our clinics were full and our spring programs ran well. That was significant because trying to build hockey in Florida isn’t easy.”

One way Ray helped build hockey was by implementing a “three goals hockey development program.”

In Goal 1, players learn how to stand up on the ice, skate forward and stop.

In Goal 2, they learn turns, backward skating and backward stopping.

In Goal 3, they learn crossovers, tight turns and passing.

“The goal of the program is to entice non-traditional players and parents to get an idea of what we offer,” Ray said. “As they improve, we separate them into Goal 2. After that, they move into the third step and eventually the house league.”

Another plus for the Vipers has been the addition of a introduction program for young 8U players.

“That program runs for an hour on Thursday nights — 30 minutes of skills and 30 minutes of cross-ice games,” Ray said.

Ray feels the Vipers are doing a successful job of transferring 8U players into the house league and retaining more kids who eventually move onto travel teams.

“The mini-mite program has a more specific structure,” Ray said. “The mini-mite parents are geared more toward the travel program over the 3-goal parents.”

A youth learn-to-play program also has contributed to the growth of the Vipers.

“It’s open to kids of all ages,” Ray said. “For example, we had one 14-year-old player who never had played before.

“We show them how to play, which involves learning basic, fundamental hockey skills so they can play in the house league.”

One more factor in the Vipers’ growth has been USA Hockey’s Try Hockey for Free Day, presented by KraftHeinz.

“We had a try-hockey-for-free day last November that USA Hockey markets and promotes,” Ray said. “We had about 35 participants and we had a lot of gear for the kids. We also had about 15 coaches volunteer.

“From there, the kids try to get into either our 3-Goal program or the mini-mite program.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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