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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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