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Oilers Attracting Kids to the Ice in Sunny San Diego

By Mike Scandura - Special to USAHockey.com, 09/01/16, 9:45AM MDT

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Association strives to give new players a great experience from the start

The definition of “wow” as a verb is “to gain an enthusiastic response from and to thrill.”

That’s what San Diego Ice Arena Oilers Hockey Director Craig Sterling wants to elicit from children who are interested in joining this program.

“We have a ‘wow’ program,” said Sterling. ”We want to make sure when somebody walks into our building that we wow them. We want to make sure they have the best time at our rink.”

The obvious question is how do the Oilers accomplish this?

“The way we wow them is we make them feel part of a family,” Sterling said. “When they bring in their family, they’re becoming part of an extended family at the SDIA. We make them feel that the rink is their own rink. We’re rated as the number-one rink [in the San Diego area] for birthday parties. Once they come to our birthday party, they all want to skate.

“We invite the kids and their families to our team events — a team party, an event on the ice or a charity hockey game. Once they see one of our youth games or a charity game, they all want to play hockey.”

Without question, the Oilers organization has wowed more children than might be expected, considering San Diego is an area with many families that have little or no background in hockey. While some may have moved from hockey hotbeds like Boston or Minneapolis, the sport is a totally new experience for others.

When the 2016-17 season commences, the Oilers will field 13 teams, compared with seven this past season.

“We have more teams because we do more developing of younger kids and we’re adding a junior varsity and varsity team in the Anaheim Ducks High School League,” Sterling said. “Another reason why we have more kids coming out is we have more coaches that are involved with USA Hockey and more are getting certified with USA Hockey.

“We have more Level 5 master level coaches [the highest level offered by USA Hockey] than any other rink in the city. We have over 60 coaches with all kinds of backgrounds including coaches who’ve played pro hockey and, of course, are USA Hockey certified.”

Another way to recognize that the Oilers are doing something right is that the organization has been in existence for 37 years and is expanding instead of contracting.

“Children that want to play hockey, we don’t look at them as dollar signs,” said Sterling. “We look at them in terms of, first, try hockey for free. We give them the hockey gear. We tie their skates. We do everything we can before we charge them.

“Then, we explain the difference between travel and rec hockey. Our retention rate is over 90 percent. We give them a good product. We give them free public skating when they sign up. Plus, the bantam kids hang out with the mite kids and the younger kids are able to look up to the older kids."

The Oilers also make sure the children's parents stay involved.

“We have so many activities for families to do when their kids are playing hockey,” Sterling said. “We want them to feel like the rink is theirs.”

If that 90 percent retention rate is impressive, check the percentage for the Oilers try-hockey-for-free program.

“We hold this once a week for six weeks,” Sterling said. “Every week, I get at least two or three new kids. Once they participate in try-hockey-for-free, over 92 percent join one of our programs.”  

Over the years, the Oilers have enjoyed a good deal of success when participating in league play, invitational and state tournaments and regionals. But, as Sterling was quick to point out, the Oilers haven’t lost sight of their primary goal.

“Number one, what we like to do is make sure our kids are having fun and don’t want to quit hockey,” he said. “Number two is we’re going to train them so they can succeed at the highest level at which they can play.

“We don’t want to win at all costs because we don’t want to sit players. If we win, it’s great. We’ve had a bantam and peewee team go to state finals. We’ve had a squirt team go to state finals. We’re not a hockey market and we have a lot of kids and families that never have seen hockey but they’ve come to an event and, all of a sudden, they sign up and play hockey for 10 years."

Not surprisingly, USA Hockey’s American Development Model has played a major role in the Oilers’ ability to obtain and retain players.

“We follow the ADM,” Sterling said. “That’s what helps us build … doing cross-ice games, for example. I go to a lot of USA Hockey seminars [Sterling is a Level 5 coach] and I make sure all of our coaches follow the ADM.

“The ADM is loved by [the kids]. You get more kids on the ice. They get more touches of the puck and play small-area games. We’re glad USA Hockey implemented the ADM.”

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Q-and-A with USA Hockey’s Director of Officiating Education Program Matt Leaf

The Referee Section of USA Hockey recently met during Annual Congress and discussed a variety of issues that will have an impact in the success of the officiating program. Many of those issues relate back to the successful completion of the registration requirements and the retention of officials.

Streamlining the registration process and maximizing the efficiency of our educational platforms are always a priority and the following Q-and-A will highlight those changes that every official should be aware of heading into the new season.

USA Hockey: What is the biggest change made to the registration requirements for this season?

Matt Leaf: With more and more seminars transitioning to a virtual format, the Referees-in-Chief (RIC) have determined that there really is no need for the closed book exams. So, level 2, 3 and 4 officials this season will no longer be required to submit a closed book (or modified online closed book exam) upon completion of the seminar requirement. Instead, the open book exams have been expanded to 75 questions for level 2 and 100 questions each for level 3 and level 4.

The RICs acknowledged that the purpose of the exams has always been as a means to encourage rule knowledge, so more effort was made to put together open book exam questions that will encourage the officials to open the Rules/Casebook in an effort to not only learn the rule, but more importantly, understand the spirit and intent of the rule.

USAH: Are there any other changes to the exam process

ML: The only other change to the exams deal with those who do not pass the original exam. Level 2, 3 and 4 officials will now be able to complete their retake exam 24 hours after failing their original exam. Level 1 officials will still need to wait seven days as we want them to slow down and take some time reviewing the rules so they can gain a better understanding and improve their chances for success on the ice.

USAH: What changes, if any, have been made to the seminars? Are all officials still required to attend a seminar each season?

ML: Yes, except for Tenured Officials, all officials are required to attend a seminar for the level that they apply for each season. So, a Level 1 official must attend a Level 1 seminar, Level 2 attends a Level 2 and then Level 3 and 4 seminars will be combined as one seminar in many cases.

Level 1 officials are strongly encouraged to attend a seminar in their own area and most areas will mainly conduct in-person Level 1 seminars. Although there will be some hybrid Level 1 seminars with both a virtual and in-person component, the key here is that every Level 1 official is required to attend a Level 1 seminar ice session. This may require some additional coordination of scheduling for these new officials, but the reality is this on-ice practice is so critical to any future success they may have on the ice that the RICs feel it is critical that the ice session is part of their educational experience.

Level 2 seminars will also include an on-ice component that Level 2 officials need to be aware of when they plan their seminar attendance. The vast majority of Level 3 and Level 4 seminars will be virtual and officials are encouraged to attend a seminar at a date and time that is convenient for them.

USAH: Have there been any changes to the curriculum for the various levels?

ML: The curriculum for each level was standardized prior to last season and is something that will continue to be updated on an annual basis. The specific presentations, along with the video examples, have all been developed in a manner that provides valuable information specific to each level with new presentations and updated video examples being used to keep things fresh and relevant. In addition, the seminar curriculum has been coordinated with the online modules to minimize duplication and to diversify the required education for each level.

USAH: How about SafeSport and Screening – any changes to those requirements?

ML: The background screening process will remain the same as USA Hockey is required to conduct a national screen every two years on any official who is 18 years of age as of June 1 of the registration year (in this case 2022). Both the background screen and the SafeSport training are mandated by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) per the Amateur Sports Act initiated by Congress.

For SafeSport, any official who was born in 2005, or earlier, is required to complete SafeSport training on a yearly basis. This may include the full training or refresher training that is managed by the US Center for SafeSport. Although it will not have an impact on registration for this season, there was a change in SafeSport that has been made where the training will only be valid for a 12-month period of time and it not consistent with an overlapping season. This will be addressed during the summer of 2023.

USAH: Are there any other changes or areas of emphasis that you want officials to be aware of?

ML: A significant part of the discussions that took place with the RICs focused on the importance mentoring plays in the success and, ultimately, the retention of brand-new officials. USA Hockey loses 50% of our new officials every season and improving that retention rate by just 15% will result in 1,000 additional experienced officials joining our ranks each year. We need to do a better job of bringing new officials into the fold and then supporting them in ways that sets them up for a successful and rewarding experience. The RICs feel strongly the best way to positively impact this issue is through mentoring.

Experienced officials should expect to receive information later this summer that outlines expectations of a formal Mentor Program and asking them to volunteer their time and expertise to become involved as a mentor. Once we have established a pool of officials that are willing to contribute in this way to the next generation of officials, they will be assigned a group of new officials they can reach out to and guide them through the registration process, seminar attendance, assistance in completing the open book exam and reaching out to prospective assignors when the time has come they are ready to work games. Once they have stepped on the ice, that mentor can continue to be a valuable resource for the new official and provide the necessary support needed to be successful. We will also be encouraging local clubs, assignors and officials’ groups to implement Shadow Programs that will complement the Mentor Program and positively enhance the officials’ experience even more.

With everyone working together towards a common goal, USA Hockey can become a leader in addressing the officiating crisis while providing a positive experience to our next generation of officials.

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