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Development Focus Fuels Cardinals

By Mike Scandura - Special to USA Hockey, 10/12/16, 8:30AM MDT

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Minnesota program provides a blueprint for girls hockey growth

Minnesota’s Alexandria Area Hockey Association launched a girls program in the late 1990s, around the same time that Alexandria Area High School started its varsity girls hockey team. The timing wasn’t coincidence and the results have been a boon for both, thanks to dedicated volunteers who believed in building a principled program that would be a source of community pride.        

“When the high school team began, it prompted the youth program to start a girls program as well,” said AAHA President Kent Kopp. “We were lucky from the start that there were coaches who wanted a girls program.        

“Our organization as a whole feels that girls deserve to play this great sport. From Day 1, the association has given girls every opportunity that the boys get. Our Alexandria Cardinal pride extends beyond the team’s gender. We are all Cardinals. We view both programs as equal. We want to see equal opportunity and success.”        

That formula has translated into AAHA girls going on to play for the very successful Alexandria Area High School girls varsity team, which has 11 Minnesota state tournament appearances and one state championship to its credit since 2004.

“The goal for the vast majority of our girls is to play for our high school team,” said Kopp. “They definitely look forward to it.”

As a result, that’s led to a symbiotic relationship between the AAHA and the high school team.

“We hold girls beginners programs,” said Kopp. “Just try it for a week. We bring in some of the girls high school players and coaches and we get most of the [new players] to sign up for the year.

“We jumped on board [with the high school team] early and it’s helped increase our numbers.”

Another key aspect of the AAHA success is its Rink Rookie program, designed to encourage girls who are 8-and-under to try hockey.

“The Rink Rookie program has been going for 20 years,” said Kopp. “It was designed to increase our numbers and give kids an opportunity to try hockey without the risk of higher expense.

“For the first two years, they’re loaned equipment and charged $100 for the opportunity to skate with us for a full season. It’s done wonders in terms of increasing our numbers. Younger girls can be hesitant to try a sport like hockey, but this gives them a new perspective.”

Part of that perspective includes exposure to USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

“We’re fully committed across the board to the ADM,” said Kopp. “What the ADM did was create a plan for coaches to have a highly energetic and engaging plan for practice.

“The girls like the ADM because they’re always motivated and have the opportunity to develop skills in a fun and exciting way. It’s super important for girls that they have fun.”

The AAHA also believes that it’s super important for their girls to succeed away from the rink. That’s why each player also experiences the S.K.A.T.E Program that rewards them for off-ice work.

The acronym stands for “Skaters Keep Achieving Through Education.” It’s a program that began at Minnesota’s Armstrong Youth Hockey Association in 1993 and spread to numerous associations throughout the state which emphasize more than merely skating, passing and shooting pucks.

“If skaters have a B average or better during the season on their school report card, they qualify for an award from S.K.A.T.E.,” explained Kopp. “They get certificates and bag tags. We also give them a trophy at our year-end awards banquet.

“We jumped on board in the late ‘90s. We decided it was an opportunity to get well-rounded skaters focused on success in the classroom as well as on the ice. We wanted to increase the awareness that their performance in the classroom is more important in life than performance on the ice.”

And S.K.A.T.E. is only part of the off-ice activity in which AAHA players are involved. They also participate in the Santa for Seniors (65 and over) community project.

“Santa for Seniors is a non-profit organization that assembles gift baskets for seniors who are home alone or who don’t have a lot of family in the area,” said Kopp. “They reached out to us to see if we would partner with them.

“We put together baskets, and a couple of weeks before Christmas, we delivered them to seniors in the area.”

Add the two together and they help advance the AAHA’s goal of developing well-rounded student athletes — youngsters who realize the importance of giving back to the community, in this case a town of 12,000 in western Minnesota.

“It’s important to give back,” said Kopp. “We want our kids to learn the value of giving back to the seniors, in part because a lot of those people helped build our rink [the Runestone Community Center] years ago.

“If the rink wasn’t built, we probably wouldn’t have an association. It was hockey and figure skating families that helped build our first sheet. A lot of those people [now] are senior citizens and we want to give back to them.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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