Seattle is coming to the forefront of the hockey world as the NHL announced a new franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 season. However, the story of Seattle hockey begins way before the NHL’s announcement.
Local rinks and USA Hockey volunteers have worked diligently over the years at the grassroots level to promote and grow the game of hockey, laying a solid foundation for expansion.
“We have a committed community of people to make it all work,” said Donna Kaufman, USA Hockey vice president, junior council and Tacoma Twin Rinks director. “Since 2000, we’ve had new organizations come on and when the NHL began to show interest in Seattle, we had a good core group of people go to city council meetings to help drive the decision.
“Most of the work that has gone on here has been from a small, tight-knit community. We went from nine sheets of ice in the state of Washington to where we are now. Our Seattle hockey group is dedicated here.”
One youth program that has already benefited from the buzz created is the Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association.
“The rinks are alive, our beginner numbers are going up, and adult hockey is going up like crazy,” Sno-King hockey director Doug Kirton said. “The population is going through the roof. We’re interested to see how it all plays out. When you’re getting people from all over the world, it seems a lot of them are interested in hockey.”
Along with that interest comes a need for more ice sheets, and not just in Seattle. Tacoma is expected to add an additional sheet, and other clubs around the state are making similar plans. Along with rinks in Kirkland and Renton, the SnoKings organization is adding a new two-sheet facility, which is expected to open later this summer in Snoqualmie.
“We’re working to get ready to fill that [facility],” Kirton said. “It’s a great spot out there in Snoqualmie, where they’re putting it up in the mountains, right beside a golf course.”
Kirton, who has been with the Sno-King program since 2006, remembers working at a rink and watching on television when the NHL made the announcement of the franchise.
“I’d gotten wind beforehand it was a done deal,” he recalled. “But you never want to take anything for granted. You wonder if there are still boxes to check, is it really going to happen. The management that’s been running the Seattle team are the most professional people I’ve ever met.”
The SnoKings were one of the first clubs in the country to host Try Hockey for Free events on a monthly basis to keep up with the demand of beginners wanting to play. At last February’s USA Hockey Try Hockey Day, over 100 kids signed up.
“We get kids in, introduce them, and then we have a steady supply being introduced to hockey throughout the offseason,” explained Jenn Wood, the club’s director of beginner hockey and the girls’ program director.
Kids who wish to continue learning the game following Try Hockey events can choose to enroll in the traditional learn-to-skate session or the Hockey 1 program. In Hockey 1, kids ages 4-9 who have never played the sport are taught the fundamentals of ice skating. They also learn the proper hockey stance, stride and how to handle a stick. It’s a six-week series with one session per week.
Once a player has successfully completed Hockey 1, they are promoted to learn-to-play, or Hockey 2, and fitted with full gear. Using USA Hockey’s American Development Model as a guide, players are placed in groups of similar skill levels, and participate in cross-ice games. Kids deemed ready for a competitive team are placed in USA Hockey designated divisions up to 18U.
One of the newest programs to the club is Late Start, geared toward kids 10-14 who are new to hockey. Participants learn the fundamentals of skating and puck-handling with a stick before playing games with their peers. Before launching the program, Wood was inundated with calls from parents of older kids wanting to play.
“I started making a spreadsheet of all the calls I got of kids in that older age group we had to turn away,” Wood said. “At the beginning of this year, I had 45 kids on this list. That was enough to start an entire program.”
Last year, Wood also started a full-time 8U girls’ team, and currently offers two teams each in 8U and 10U. Girls also have the option of playing on co-ed teams, and girls-only clinics take place throughout the regular season.
“A lot of parents of girls hadn’t considered hockey as an option,” Wood explained. “But now that they see the excitement over the NHL Seattle team coming in, there’s been a lot of excitement over girls hockey recently.”
As part of Hockey Week Across America, USA Hockey is celebrating Salute to Local Rinks Day, dedicated to local facilities that help shape a love of the game across the country. Kirton believes the enthusiasm surrounding the NHL franchise is just the tip of the iceberg for the growth of his and other programs in the Seattle area.
“We’re a market that needs as many indoor sports as it can get in the wintertime,” he said. “People are crying for activities. Throw the NHL on top of that, and you’ve got a tinderbox … it’s like all the stars lined up. The way they’re approaching their programming is off the charts.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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