When temperatures in southeast Florida reach the 80s, Palm Beach Blackhawks Director of Hockey Operations Tim Krykostas knows where to look to find sports-minded kids. And it isn’t at the beaches.
It’s the Palm Beach Skate Zone.
“Florida isn’t a traditional hockey state, but we have a lot of quality players who are coming up through the ranks and playing at the NCAA level,” Krykostas said. “The climate is hot and kids get inside and skate. [Hockey] seems to be a sport that kids are flocking to.
“About 10 years ago, roller hockey was popular and a lot of our players started there and converted to [ice] hockey. We find a lot of younger players will start in roller hockey. Once they do, they get hooked and switch over to ice.”
That’s only one of several reasons why, according to Krykostas, the Blackhawks comprise the largest youth travel hockey association in Florida, with 12 teams encompassing 185 boys this season. They have one mite development team, six teams that play in the Florida Amateur Hockey A League and five that play in the Statewide Florida AA League.
Other reasons for the sport’s growth in southeast Florida include the fact the Blackhawks reach out to the community through their relationship with the NHL’s Florida Panthers; their Score with Reading Program; and the fact they have long embraced USA Hockey’s American Development Model. Also, in conjunction with the Panthers, the Blackhawks hold try-hockey-for-free days.
The Score with Reading Program involves board members visiting elementary schools in the Palm Beach community and reading to youngsters. After the reading program, children are presented a goody bag filled with hockey-related items.
“We’ve done a good job of getting out to the community and growing the game at the grassroots level,” Krykostas said.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Blackhawks Skills Coach Bobby Davis is a strong proponent of the ADM.
“This is a philosophy I’ve believed in my whole life,” he said. “I broke down the different fundamentals including skating, shooting and passing. It’s important to know what stuff works to make players better.”
Davis also drew on his experience playing hockey in Europe.
“A lot of these European countries understand that there’s a certain window in which to develop these hockey skills,” he said. “A lot of younger kids [in Europe] don’t play games. They focus on skill development.”
Krykostas noted that the Blackhawks instituted a “structured ADM program.”
Players are on the ice three days per week. On Mondays, for example, a skills academy is held for mites and squirts along with two bantam sessions and one midget session.
“The emphasis behind the skills academy is to get age-appropriate skills training,” Krykostas said. “For example, some coaches specialize in skating and passing. We’ve been doing that for five years before the ADM came about.
“Our goal is to have a full program that includes skill development along with [teaching] the mental aspects of playing a team sport.”
Like many organizations, the Blackhawks had to convince parents that the ADM concepts, especially playing 8U games on a smaller surface, would be of maximum benefit to their players, instead of playing full-ice games 100 percent of the time.
“I had mites a year back, and at the beginning of the season it was difficult for parents whose kids had played full-ice,” Davis said. “After the season was done, everybody realized the benefit of playing on a smaller surface. These kids were better than the other kids.
“People who were against the smaller surface were parents of kids who were more talented, but by the end of the season, they realized that the smaller surface provided a situation where kids had to play through traffic.”
Kryskostas added: “Anybody can skate in open ice. We had to educate parents about the benefits of playing in traffic and in tight spaces.”
Blackhawks players developed so well that in recent years they’ve captured several tournament championships. In addition, several Blackhawks have played on Florida Alliance all-star teams that represent the state.
However, the Blackhawks haven’t lost sight of arguably the primary factor that persuades kids to play hockey.
“You have to keep it fun for the kids,” Davis said. “You have to focus on what the kids need and understand it’s for them.
“You have to keep that mindset of what’s best for the kids. If you keep that as the No. 1 priority, good things happen for the kids.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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