The NHL Winter Classic has become a familiar tradition for pro hockey fans across the United States since it began 10 years ago.
Last month, another outdoor classic made a big splash in Anchorage, Alaska, and is poised to become a tradition in that city’s youth hockey community.
On Feb. 10, the first Little Dippers Winter Classic was held at the Bonnie Cusack Outdoor Rinks. Hosted by the Anchorage Hockey Association (AHA), the event was open to 8U players in the Anchorage area. More than 400 kids took part in half-ice games on two NHL-size rinks that were divided into four with hardboard dividers. Games were held an hour apart, with the ice resurfaced after every two games.
The morning began with half-ice games played by four 10U teams.
“There are some states that are starting to propose half-ice at 10U, so we thought, hey, let’s give it a try,” explained Kirk Kullberg, AHA’s 8U director.
Depending on the weather, outdoor hockey in Alaska is more common among adult leagues than youth programs, which was a major factor in planning the Winter Classic. An event of this magnitude usually takes months of preparation, but Kullberg and his staff put everything together in less than a month. Kullberg recalled a conversation this past January between him and the AHA’s director of player development, Barrett Heisten. Both are graduates of USA Hockey’s NARCE hockey director program and they began discussing an 8U event that would not only provide a fun outlet for the players, but be cost-effective for the teams.
“Barrett and I were just on the ice talking in the middle of practice,” Kullberg said with a chuckle. “It was a mutual thing. [One of us] was like, ‘We should have a Winter Classic.’ I don’t remember specifically who started it. I think I said, ‘We should bring the boards down and we could play half-ice games.’ You could tell it was put together at the last minute, but it still looked really good.”
Kullberg and Heisten’s enthusiasm was contagious. Parents, coaches, and even Kullberg’s wife pitched in to help. A silent auction was held to offset some of the cost. The Alaska State Hockey Association took care of ice and food costs. Alaska Sand and Gravel donated the use of a grill and chef to prepare hamburgers and hot dogs.
“We broke even on the event, so it cost us nothing,” Kullberg said. “We still had over 30 teams on the ice in one location. We went for 10 hours, nobody got hurt, everybody had fun. It’s a great experience for the kids.”
To grasp the significance of this extraordinary accomplishment, one need look no further than Kullberg’s previous line of work. A native of Anchorage, he spent 10 years in the United States Marine Corps before returning to Alaska. He joined AHA in 2014, became Learn to Skate/Learn to Play director in 2015, and took over as 8U director last May. Kullberg had the full support of AHA’s board in planning the Winter Classic, and being a Marine taught him a lot about getting things done quickly and efficiently.
“We knew it was going to be a big undertaking, but Kirk took the idea and he ran with it,” Heisten said. “We secured tents, we secured the ice … Kirk’s a very well-organized person. We got a lot of people behind it.”
The Little Dippers program uses USA Hockey’s American Development Model, giving boys and girls the opportunity to learn the game at their own pace. Players advance according to skill level, not just by age. Kullberg currently oversees four red teams, six white teams and six blue teams. He credits the ADM for not only developing players, but helping them enjoy the game.
“If a kid wants to get on the ice, he wants to be excited, he wants to move for 60 minutes, and he wants to have fun in the game he loves, the ADM is the way to go,” Kullberg said. “If you don’t use it, I guarantee you’ll lose memberships.”
“We have over 200 8U players,” he explained. “If we weren’t utilizing our ice and our coaches efficiently, I don’t think we could be the size that we are. We would have to provide so much more ice sheets. Having 60 kids on an ice sheet is beneficial for us. It allows us to grow.”
Speaking of growth, Kullberg’s goal is to have 300 8U players enrolled in the program. As for the future of the Winter Classic, he hopes to include 12U, 14U and 16U teams.
“The other thing we’re talking about is next year, we might incorporate a free session for kids to come skate with their coaches, the kids who want to practice more or kids who just want to go out and have fun with their friends on another day,” Kullberg said. “I think that would do a lot to make them enjoy the game.”
If last month’s debut event is any indication, the Little Dippers Winter Classic will continue to be a much-anticipated tradition in Anchorage for years to come.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc