Before the Vegas Golden Knights began their first NHL season, youth hockey in southern Nevada was geared toward short-term gain and consistent with the mood of a non-traditional hockey market.
It didn’t take long, though, for the club to discover the community was hungry for not only a professional team, but a grassroots effort that would encourage long-term development and foster enthusiasm for kids of all ages to learn the sport and enjoy participating.
“You had parents that would say, ‘My child just wants to play hockey, why do they need to learn how to skate first?’” said Matt Flynn, the Golden Knights’ senior manager for youth hockey development. “I think they’ve seen now there’s a core skill base that’s needed for our game.”
Flynn admits the Golden Knights’ historic first season went a long way toward creating a desire among kids and their families up and down the Las Vegas Valley to take up hockey. He set about creating a structure designed to serve exactly that purpose utilizing USA Hockey’s American Development Model. The goal was to bring all participating rinks under the ADM umbrella, instead of each focusing on its own structure.
“People were aware of [the ADM], coaches were probably using parts of the practice plans,” explained Flynn, who played hockey at Radford University and spent 10 years with the Washington Capitals before joining the Golden Knights in 2018. “But it might change season to season. It seemed a bit cumbersome for us to do three different models with three rinks. We created a model that was repeatable, consistent, and helped drive participation in the game.”
The Golden Knights held their first Try Hockey for Free Day in 2017. It was a huge success, drawing 100 kids. Besides the two USA Hockey events in the spring and fall, Flynn now holds numerous other Try Hockey days, including one for girls during IIHF World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend in early October. Once kids have successfully completed the learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs, Flynn and his staff felt it was important to add another layer of development before advancing them to league play. Last year, the Lil’ Knights Cross-Ice program was born, allowing players to take the fundamental skills they learned and adapt them to a team concept using station-based practices.
“Kids get a chance to learn drills, they start practicing things in small-area games,” Flynn said. “They’re learning offensive and defensive strategies, gap control, things to do with and away from the puck. We basically build them into becoming good teammates. Then, they go into the house league.”
The program is already experiencing results, not just in terms of developing young hockey players, but in numbers. According to Flynn, between 240 and 300 kids take part at any given time. Initially, sessions were only held at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility. The Las Vegas Ice Center and Sobe Ice Arena have recently been added. Classes are held for eight weeks, starting with a skate evaluation to determine which level kids are eligible to sign up for. Two sessions are held each week. The first is geared toward station-based drills. The second focuses on live game action: offense, defense, rebounding, passing and board play.
“Whatever the focus of the drills was on practice day is the emphasis of the games the following [practice],” Flynn explained.
The Lil’ Knights are funded by the The D Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. Participants only pay a registration fee, which covers jerseys, training aids, and coaching support. All coaches are USA Hockey-certified, and Flynn’s program conducts seminars for coaches looking to increase their certification level. Each coach must undergo a background check and is required to complete the SafeSport program.
Every level of the Golden Knights’ youth development is at or near full capacity. It’s a good situation to be in, and Flynn believes the ADM has created an environment where both coaches and players can thrive together.
“It helps focus the game in a different way,” he said. “It takes something that can be overwhelming and difficult to grasp and brings it down to their level. It helps coaches set an expectation level, and it gives young kids smaller bites to digest. It keeps them engaged.”
In a community that’s eager for hockey, the Golden Knights expect steady growth to continue for years to come.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.