There’s nothing like a Stanley Cup to generate buzz within a community, particularly among kids. When the Washington Capitals won it in 2018, they immediately saw growth throughout their youth hockey program.
Caps Youth Hockey covers a 75-mile radius that includes D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The three-state market has over 40 rinks and 50 sheets of ice.
But there’s another reason youth hockey is thriving in the D.C. area: the Future Caps Learn to Play program, presented by World Wide Technology. Since its inception at the start of the 2016-17 season, the Future Caps have introduced 6,200 kids to hockey.
“We are a very small market compared to Boston and Minnesota,” explained Jessie Thompson, the club’s manager of youth hockey development who runs day-to-day operations for Learn to Play. “We’re really proud that we’ve been able to introduce that number to the sport.”
This season, Future Caps is being hosted at 15 different rinks, with plans to add more in the near future. One of them is in Annapolis, home of the Navy youth program. An original partner since the beginning of Learn to Play, the program consistently ranks at or near the top in registration. Out of the 300 kids and 17 teams ranging from 6U to 18U, nearly 75 percent have come from Learn to Play.
“It’s been awesome with us to grow the game,” said Director of Navy Youth Hockey Zach Arden, who coordinates Learn to Play in Annapolis. “Word of mouth is how it really spreads. We’ve got a lot of siblings that have come up through the program, a lot of kids at schools, and the local community.”
Future Caps is open to boys and girls ages 5 to 9 who have skating experience but are playing with a stick in their hand for the first time. To qualify, kids must be able to skate from one end of the ice to the other without marching, and must be able to fall down and get back up on their own.
“The first couple classes of the curriculum do include a couple skating drills, just so the players can get reacclimated,” Thompson explained. “But for the most part, it is a hockey-based program.”
Participants register for eight classes of instruction and receive a full set of hockey gear: helmets, pads, gloves, a jersey, pants, socks, skates, a stick and an equipment bag.
All classes emphasize cross-ice training, skill development and other concepts that follow USA Hockey’s American Development Model. Certified coaches and former Capitals players teach age-appropriate on-ice instruction, utilizing small group games where the kids are constantly moving with each drill. Attendees also receive USA Hockey membership for a year.
Last season, Thompson and her staff conducted a survey of parents whose kids participated in Learn to Play. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
“This program was great for my 7-year-old,” wrote one parent. “Providing the equipment made it very easy to get started. [The coaches] were patient with kids who had less skating skills, but it did not take away from those that were ready for the next level.”
Boys and girls are introduced to the game in a co-ed environment, with coaching and instruction along the way.
Along with the support of the Capitals, World Wide Technology joined as a sponsor last season. The global technology solutions company provides funding for more equipment to participants and allows the program to be available to more rinks.
“We’re now going to be able to expand the program, if the interest is there, because of the funding from World Wide Technology,” explained Peter Robinson, the club’s director of youth hockey development. “We can basically grow the program as big as we want it to be.”
Life after the pandemic has presented its share of challenges for the Future Caps. But they developed new ways of instruction including virtual videos to help players practice skills on their own during the shutdown. They also managed to conduct Learn to Play this past season, albeit on a smaller scale. As the 2021-22 season begins, 200 kids have registered since August.
While growth is always the focus, the main objective is eliminating barriers to make hockey accessible for all.
“We just want everybody to realize hockey is for everyone,” Robinson explained. “If they want to play or participate, they can, and there’s many forms and levels in which they can do so.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.