It isn’t often that one learn-to-skate event triples the membership of a youth hockey organization, yet that’s exactly what Chris Johnson and the St. Louis Cyclones were able to accomplish this spring.
The all-girls organization drew more than 100 new participants thanks to a massive, month-long grassroots effort promoting a learn-to-skate event on April 4.
The impressive marketing drive relied heavily upon social media buzz and donations from hockey retailer Total Hockey, but it also received promotional help from the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, local TV news outlets and good old-fashioned legwork from Johnson, the Cyclones’ director of hockey operations.
“The bottom line to all of that is: We registered 123 girls to come to the event,” Johnson said proudly. “One hundred and eleven of them showed up, and right now, I have 98 of them converted into my spring learn-to-play program and another 12 of them that couldn’t make the Wednesday night learn-to-play times, so they’re going to come to my summer learn to play.
“So I went from 56 girls originally on Feb. 1 rostered with our club, and today I have 179 girls in our hockey club. It’s pretty cool.”
How did he do it? It took a lot of hard work, but Johnson received plenty of help along the way.
The whole idea began when Johnson realized, around Christmastime, that the Cyclones simply needed more girls involved. Some age groups barely had enough girls to fill out a single roster (the 6U team had only nine girls), and placing experienced girls who knew how to play on the same teams as girls just learning to skate was resulting in the advanced girls getting bored and the inexperienced ones struggling to keep up.
So Johnson began visiting local rinks and scouting girls at open skate events, and there he discovered that many people in the area (parents and kids) had no idea that a local girls-only hockey association even existed.
By mid-February, he’d recruited 10 girls for his spring learn-to-play program, but the campaign really took off when someone suggested he partner up with Total Hockey.
“I reached out to Total Hockey, and they’ve got a First Stride program,” Johnson said. “You do all the legwork, you do all the recruiting and the marketing and you get all the girls to sign up, and then they go to Total Hockey and get fitted for everything but skates. We’re talking helmets, shoulders, gloves, elbows, pants, shins, socks, a jersey, a stick and a bag. Then they come out to a learn-to-skate event that I host, which was April 4, and while they’re there, before they leave the rink, if they sign up for my spring learn to play, they get to keep it free, almost $250 worth of equipment.”
That connection occurred in the beginning of March, so the push to get more girls signed up for the April 4 event really took off.
“Now I had something to tell parents,” said Johnson, whose daughter skates for the Cyclones. “‘Not only can you come to my learn-to-skate for free, but here’s $250 worth of brand new hockey equipment if you decide you want to sign up.’
“And my spring learn-to-play is only $100, so essentially, what my pitch was, for $100, you get $250 worth of Bauer gear, a great event on a Saturday afternoon at the Ice Zone where the Blues practice and eight weeks of learn to play.”
Social media became a big player in the process, and as word began to spread, Johnson managed to get the Blues to re-tweet the info and mention it on their broadcast. He also booked himself segments on three different networks’ live TV news shows, continued to hit the local rinks to find new girls and also solicited local elementary schools, personally delivering the message to 20 different schools.
When the day of the event arrived, Johnson procured additional help to manage the overwhelming turnout, and everything went smoothly.
“I actually had to split it into two groups,” he said. “I think I had 18 coaches from our club, and other clubs, on the ice helping. And I brought in 20 of our own players that are already in the club, with their jerseys on, that were helping the girls get dressed in the locker room for the event, and that would come on the ice with the girls.”
Johnson is impressed with just how willing everybody was to help him get the word out. People seemed to recognize the need to get more girls involved playing hockey and did whatever they could to help facilitate that effort.
“I definitely got help from just about everybody I asked,” he said. “There were a lot of people involved. We got a lot of organizations behind us, people started getting excited, and I would get emails from random people in the market, coaches from other clubs, that would say, ‘This is fantastic what you’re doing, if you need any help that day, let me know.’ It was incredible.”
Of course, the first step was getting the girls on the ice to try the sport. Now the challenge is to integrate them into the Cyclones’ organization, and that process is underway.
“While the girls were helping the kids get dressed, I pulled all the parents together in the lobby and had a parent meeting,” Johnson said of the April 4 event. “I explained what we were going to do, how I was going to do it and what the progression looked like. I wanted everybody to know that this was the first stride into hockey, but the next plan is to be in our [spring] learn-to-play program, and the next plan was to be in the summer learn-to-play program, and all this is a build-up to what you are really coming here for, which is to play hockey next fall and winter.
“We will have multiple 6U teams and we’ll have multiple 8U teams, and some of the older girls will roll into the squirt and peewee teams as well, but that’s where we’re going with it, and this is just the beginning.”
And as soon as month later, he was already seeing some of the payoff.
“It is so worth it when you see these girls get out on the ice and come back week after week now and watch them going from barely able to skate to whipping through the drills,” Johnson said. “It’s really been heart-warming to see the transformation of these girls.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photos from Chris Johnson.