Like many rinks across the United States on March 3, the Arcadia Ice Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, was buzzing with excitement. That’s because a group of 30 children were experiencing their first-ever hockey lesson and, in some cases, putting on skates for the first time in their lives.
The event was part of USA Hockey’s national Try Hockey For Free Day, which was held in conjunction with the 11th annual Hockey Weekend Across America, a three-day celebration of the game of hockey, the people involved and those who help expose the game to new audiences.
The Arcadia rink, where Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews got his start, was one of four rinks in the Phoenix metropolitan area and one of hundreds nationally that were participating in the event.
Andy Gibson from USA Hockey’s Membership Development department was one of many instructors on hand to help at the Phoenix rink. He explained that cost and ice availability can be roadblocks for some would-be hockey families, so USA Hockey removes those roadblocks with Try Hockey For Free Day by making participation and equipment free of charge.
“There can be some barriers of entry when it comes to youth sports,” Gibson said. “So, we try to find ways to break down those barriers to get kids out to try hockey, and if they like it, transition them into programs so they can learn to play a little bit more and fall in love with the game.”
While Saturday’s session was only an hour long, Gibson said a lot of progress can be made in that hour. Some children are hesitant to even step out on the ice in those first few minutes, but once they get the feel for being on skates, get a stick in their hand and take a shot at a goal, the love for playing can take hold quickly.
“We find that disguising a lot of our skill development in fun and games is a great way to expose them to playing hockey,” Gibson said. “And stuff like today, walking kids through their first experience of scoring a goal. Once they do that, that’s all they want to do and they have a blast doing it.”
Jean Spurlin was one of those parents who brought their child out to get their first taste of playing hockey.
Spurlin, who grew up playing ball hockey in her Phoenix neighborhood cul-de-sac, says that her daughter, Ally, came to her expressing an interest in giving hockey a try. After going online to see where to start, she found information on the Try Hockey For Free Day.
“She loves going to Coyotes games and we watched the U.S. Women’s Team win gold at the Olympics,” Spurlin noted. “So, I think there was a little bit of encouragement there, seeing that women could play hockey.”
After she came off the ice, Ally gave her first taste of playing hockey a thumbs-up.
“I learned that, when you’re starting, you should take little steps,” said Ally, who also expressed interest in getting back out on the ice again in the near future.
Scott Seganti was another parent who brought his child out to Saturday’s event. While his son, Jacob, first put skates on at the age of two, Saturday was his first hockey lesson. Seganti brought him to see if the passion that he’s shown for the game at such a young age as a fan would turn into an interest in actually playing hockey.
“I don’t know if it’s through osmosis or what, but he definitely has an affinity to it,” Seganti said. "He loves skating, he loves all the gear and everything. He sleeps in his bed at night with a hockey stick.”
After Jacob finished Saturday’s initial lesson, he was already excited at the prospect of another lesson.
“It was good!” exclaimed Jacob.
Gibson says one of the most rewarding things for him is seeing how quickly children like Ally, Jacob and others can pick up the basic concepts of the game.
“Once they get a stick in their hand, from sweeping the puck forward to taking a slap shot, to skating and passing, they really pick it up on their own,” Gibson said. “Kids are pretty smart and durable and they get all the credit on these days.”