Conventional wisdom would tell you that Alabama, home of the 16-time national champion Crimson Tide, is only football country.
But don’t tell that to North Alabama Youth Hockey Association Registrar Liz Aaron.
“I’m not surprised hockey is popular, because they have a passion here for sports regardless if it’s soccer or basketball or anything in between,” said Aaron. “Other people who don’t live here are surprised. We have great facilities here [The Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Complex in Huntsville plus the Point Mallard Ice Complex in Decatur].
“When people come to these facilities, it’s a welcoming experience. We don’t have trouble getting them to come back. If we get them in the door, they come back. Hockey sells itself.”
Aaron has numbers to back up that statement.
In 2007-08, NAHA had 268 players registered for its house league. Last season it had 387. Do the math and that’s an increase of 31 percent.
This season, NAHA has travel teams at the 10U, 12U, 14U, 14U AA, 16U, and 16U AA levels.
“Over the last 10 years, our percentages definitely are up,” said Aaron.
NAHA belongs to the Southeastern District, which encompasses Alabama, Arkansas, Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina Tennessee and Virginia. Over the last five seasons, district membership has increased 18 percent.
“We’re focused on grassroots hockey,” Aaron said in explaining why membership is growing in the district. “We’re focused on getting kids into USA Hockey’s try-hockey-for-free program, which benefits from the support USA Hockey provides for younger players.
“We’ve been able to build the next program. We find that, once those little guys are in, the parents want to learn to play hockey. We find if you get the whole family in here, they have a lot of fun. What also helps is that hockey players in this area are great in terms of donating gear. We rent it out at a low cost.”
What NAHA also does is contact schools in the area and then hockey coaches take over the physical education classes. In addition, NAHA distributes flyers that explain the benefits of learning to play hockey.
“Some kids haven’t seen hockey,” said Aaron. “The P.E. teachers are super cooperative.”
NAHA Director of Hockey Martin Kubaliat also is an advocate of try-hockey-for-free days.
“We try to get as many kids from the schools as possible to come,” he said. “First, we want them to play floor hockey. We bring balls and sticks so kids can see what hockey is about and then we invite them to try hockey on the ice at a free clinic.”
Kubaliat also was quick to add that NAHA has benefitted immensely from USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
“We like it a lot,” he said. “The ADM keeps kids more involved. With station-based practices, you can have at least 10 to 20 kids involved at the various stations.
“With the stations, it’s better for the coaches because they can be more involved with kids. We have six to 10 kids per coach. The coach can help and teach them at each station. Plus the kids learn better as well.”
As Kubaliat explained, NAHA has six stations for every age group and the kids are split up evenly.
“We work on skills like skating, passing and body positioning,” he said.
Another reason for NAHA’s increase in membership is its affiliation with the NHL’s Nashville Predators.
“The Predators are two hours north of us and we have a program called the Little Preds Learn to Play which is in partnership with Nashville,” said Aaron. “They provide a full set of gear. The cost is only $20 more than our learn-to-play program. Our coaches do the training, which is huge.
“Last year, we had 204 kids in that program between the ages of four and eight and each had a new set of gear. After that, they should be able to jump into our 6U and 8U house league. That just started last year, so now we’re looking to see if there is a spike at our younger levels.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.