Like having a top line of shutdown defensemen, Whatcom County Amateur Hockey Association President Ted Ritter has a reliable one-two punch of his own through USA Hockey’s Try-Hockey-for-Free Days and grow-the-game programs.
“Five years ago, WCAHA had 72 kids mostly in the older age groups,” said Ritter of the association, which is located 90 miles north of Seattle. “Realizing the challenge, the board made a commitment to USA Hockey’s grow-the-game programs. We repeatedly achieved gold in the 2-and-2 Challenge and were successful with try-hockey-for-free events.
“As a result, we more than doubled the number of players to the point where we ended with around 150 kids last season.”
WCAHA’s next try-hockey-for-free day is Nov. 4, as part of USA Hockey’s national Try-Hockey-For-Free Day. WCAHA closely aligns with the experience USA Hockey promotes in a video showcasing what the THFF is all about.
“One key to our growth has been our retention program,” said Ritter. “It’s similar to what you see in the try-hockey video. I’ve watched it and was amazed with how closely it matches what we do. This fits perfectly with our half-season registration.”
Half-season registration enables boys and girls to join in January, when the association makes rental or other arrangements to keep the cost of entry low.
“We’ve commented to USA Hockey that this works great in the fall try-hockey day,” said Ritter. “But in the spring, longer-term retention is an issue so to get the kids enough experience to know if they want to continue, we rent ice and offer an eight-practice session that’s open to try-hockey kids first and others to fill the session.”
At its try-hockey sessions, WCAHA has a one-to-one ratio where a new child is paired either with an adult or an older child.
“When you get older kids helping younger kids, it’s great,” said Ritter. “We have coaches that teach them well. Our older players that help kids take great pride and effort in taking that little kid under their wings.
“In the try-hockey world, if a mom sees her son or daughter not being attended [to], you’re going to lose that kid. Try-hockey is open to boys and girls. We really try hard to encourage girls. Try hockey is elemental to our success.”
WCAHA offers low-cost admission to “Play Hockey” at 8U practices where full gear is provided for a refundable deposit. The program integrates kids into the appropriate level, most of whom join the beginners group.
Another important aspect of WCAHA is its parent-education program.
“Two years ago we started requiring one parent or guardian of every player to take [USA Hockey’s SafeSport program related to off-ice safety] before their kid can take the ice,” said Ritter. “This increases awareness and puts more informed parents in our building.”
SafeSport is designed to inform parents that various types of off-ice misconduct and abuse aren’t tolerated.
Meanwhile, USA Hockey’s American Development Model is WACHA’s guiding principle on the ice.
“We follow the ADM and focus really hard on skill development,” said Ritter. “When kids get to be nine or 10, some parents want to see kids practice breakouts, but we want to put the time into skill development when the kid is at the optimal physical and mental level, that ‘Golden Age of Skill Development.’
“We’re moving to small-area and cross-ice. It provides creativity and skill development. We teach small-area games. Kids need to be able to skate through traffic and make passes. Skating and puck handling are important. We also have dryland training for players that helped build athleticism and camaraderie.”
Because practices benefit from having an adequate number of coaches, WACHA emphasizes the need for volunteers.
“This is important in terms of parent participation,” said Ritter. “Parents are filling in on and off the ice.
“We’re changing the terminology with our parents, to establish the mindset of a cooperative of hockey families.”
That’s another way of saying everyone needs to contribute.
Last but not least, WACHA also benefits from its work with the Washington Wild women’s coaches. The Wild are a non-profit, volunteer association that’s dedicated to promoting girls ice hockey and developing female players in the Pacific Northwest.
“We work closely with them,” said Ritter. “At one time, we had a girls’ hockey weekend and only had women on the ice. The retention rate was really high. About 20 girls participated and we retained at least a dozen.
“The Wild will come and talk with our parents. It’s done a great deal for girls in the state of Washington.”
Already this year WACHA has held an open house at the Bellingham Sportsplex where, according to Ritter, every minute of ice time that’s available is utilized.
Jamborees also are on the schedule as well as various tournaments.
“We have an Icebreaker Swap Meet which is great for parents,” said Ritter. “They can exchange equipment with other parents.
“Every spring we have a season-ending banquet where we celebrate every team and player.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.