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For Sun Prairie Youth Hockey, Try Hockey For Free Day Takes a Village

By Ryan Williamson, 02/22/18, 12:15PM MST


Madison-area association succeeds with getting players out on the ice and into the fold

When Sun Prairie Youth Hockey Association secretary Betsy McCrary first started working with the association’s Try Hockey for Free Day in 2011, she saw it as an opportunity to grow the game.

“One of the things I first noticed when getting into hockey was that we do a great job of keeping in tune with our legacy families — those who have a parent or close relative that played hockey,” McCrary said. “One of my objectives was to find ways to reach those who aren’t part of that group.”

SPYHA, just outside Madison, Wisconsin, has succeeded for nearly seven years when it comes to hosting Try Hockey For Free events. They not only attract a large number of players, they get many to stay with the sport in the future.

Growing up, McCrary admits she only knew one kid in high school who had played hockey. But with her entire family now deeply involved in the sport on the playing and volunteer side, she has developed a strong passion for getting others involved in hockey.

“There’s just something special about hockey,” McCrary said. “You build those really strong bonds. I want the kids in our community to have the best opportunity to do whatever they want.”

With that in mind, McCrary has helped grow this event into something that mobilizes the entire association.

It starts with active members in the organization. Younger youth players help direct Try Hockey participants to the correct area. Parents and players are there to help those new to hockey try on the equipment for the first time. When these youngsters finally hit the ice, high school hockey players and coaches are there to help provide a unique experience for each child.

“There’s a buy-in from the entire association, from 10U all the way up to the high school players,” McCrary said. “We try to give each kid almost a one-on-one experience.”

In the time Sun Prairie has done Try Hockey For Free, there are already numerous success stories. This includes many families that don’t have much of a history when it comes to the sport of hockey.

Shawn Nelson and Tim Hebgen both had little experience with the sport before signing their children up for Try Hockey For Free. But that first day helped spark a strong commitment to the sport.

“I believe it was a really big deal for the kids to get dressed in the hockey gear and get out on the ice,” Nelson said. “Once they were out there on the ice, interacting with the older kids, my son was hooked. That was a big deal for him.”

Hebgen tells a similar story about his son, Ryan, who now plays 10U in the association. For Ryan, his Try Hockey experience came full-circle. Ryan was recently back out on the ice helping a new skater at a Try Hockey For Free event. His effort with one player was so well-received, the player’s parent wrote an email to McCrary acknowledging the great work Ryan had done.

“Ryan always wants to go out there and help,” Tim Hebgen said. “He was just extremely patient with the kid. This day is just a wonderful way to get a quick little feel for how your child might enjoy the sport.”

There are others in the Sun Prairie Association who have a long history with the sport and they’ve also introduced new players via Try Hockey For Free Day. This includes Paolo Pavelski and his son, James. Paolo’s nephew is 2010 and 2014 U.S. Olympian Joe Pavelski, the Plover, Wisconsin, native and San Jose Sharks captain.

With James able to watch his relative make it to the sport’s highest level, Try Hockey was just another way to get involved with the sport.

“That day gave him a great opportunity to strap on all the stuff and see what it’s like to be out on the ice with the gear on,” Paulo Pavelski said. “That was the biggest draw for [James].”

Like hundreds of associations across the country, Sun Prairie will be holding another Try Hockey For Free Day on March 4 as part of USA Hockey’s annual Hockey Weekend Across America. It’s just another chance for McCrary and others to expose another group to the sport they’re so passionate about.

“We want to give kids somewhere they want to be,” McCrary said. “This day gives them opportunities and life skills. Even if they don’t want to pursue [hockey] as a passion, it’s a core skill they can use the rest of their life.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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