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Sturdy foundation keeps Amherst YHA going strong

By Mike Scandura - Special to, 03/03/14, 12:00PM MST


Travel teams notwithstanding, the Amherst Youth Hockey Association’s learn-to-play program is the foundation for the organization that serves the western Massachusetts communities of Amherst, Belchertown, Hadley, Hatfield, Leverett, Pelham, Shutesbury, Sunderland and Ware.

“About halfway through the season we look at the learn-to-play house program and look for players who have heart, hustle, energy and enthusiasm,” said association President Dan Feldman. “But it also is a matter of recognizing hockey instead of just free skating. The kids seem to have an understanding of the game. They have an idea. They have the beginnings of the concept of being ready for a pass and getting back on defense.

“The other factor is their families also have to be enthusiastic in terms of supporting their kids’ desire to plug away with hockey because it’s a team effort.”

Another major component of the AYHA is its learn-to-skate program.

“Six years ago we had 62 kids in that program,” Feldman said. “That program has increased to as many as 118 kids. If we can maintain about 100 kids in the learn-to-skate program, we’re doing a good job and it allows them to meet their potential.

“Then, I think our future is bright.”

This season, the AYHA is fielding five mite teams, three squirt teams, three peewee teams, two bantam teams and one midget team. Each team is distinguished by a color — primarily red, white and blue.

The AYHA has 267 boys registered this season, which is consistent with the number that has registered in recent seasons.

“We don’t turn away any kid who wants to play hockey unless there is a behavior issue,” Feldman said. “But if we have a kid who just loves hockey, who has a great attitude, who wants to get better and is coachable, we don’t cut him from the program.”

An intense marketing program is another reason why the AYHA is able to maintain consistent numbers, as well as the fact its home base is the Mullins Center — a state-of-the-art arena that’s on the campus of UMass-Amherst.

“Our program has grown a lot in the last five to six years because of marketing and public relations and also because we use some of USA Hockey’s tools like Try Hockey for Free Day,” Feldman said. “We also work really hard to keep it affordable.

“We have an Olympic-size facility that’s beautiful with good parking. Kids love going there because their parents aren’t freezing.”

In summation, marketing, affordable fees and good coaches — approximately 50 of them — combine to make the AYHA a successful association for western Massachusetts.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the fact the AYHA adheres to USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

“We embraced the ADM the first year it was rolled out,” Feldman said. “Our ADM practices are run right out of the USA Hockey website. We have drill stations for mites where we discuss and demonstrate and then have the kids perform.

“We explain to them and demonstrate and then we have them do it. We correct where needed. I think this is one reason why we have pretty consistent attendance at our practices.”

AYHA travel teams have enjoyed a fair amount of success this season.

The Bantam Red team won the Kittredge Tournament in Pittsfield, Mass., and the Squirt Red team won the Simsbury (Conn.) Hockey Tournament. In addition, the Bantam Red team also reached the finals of the Thanksgiving Goblet Tournament in Foxborough, Mass.

“In order to get to the finals [of the Goblet Tournament], we beat Boston-area teams,” Feldman said. “It’s not that common for western Massachusetts teams to beat eastern Massachusetts teams because of the population factor.

“But what we’re trying to do is provide a safe and supervised environment for the children to be able to enjoy the sport and treat it as a recreation instead of a job. It’s a place where they can go to have fun. We want to use our know-how and our resources to help kids compete at a high level.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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