When the ice is ready the first week in October, the Joe Marmo/Wayne Lehto Ice Arena in Idaho Falls, Idaho, gets jam-packed.
The Idaho Falls Youth Hockey Association (IFYHA) welcomes players from as far as two hours away, since Idaho Falls is home to the only indoor hockey rink within a two-hour radius on the southeastern side of state.
The boys’ participation figures have been sturdy for years, so the association has been focusing on continually increasing the number of girls who skate. USA Hockey’s Welcome Back Week is critical for bringing in and retaining girls for the upcoming season. That will be a major emphasis of the IFYHA.
“We tell our girls, ‘Hey, bring one or two of your friends down to the rink,’” IFYHA president John Rifelj said. “We put them in gear and then we’ll see what we can get out of that.”
The gender-specific approach to the opening week of practice is the same method the association used last season.
“We’re definitely trying to grow our girls program to get as many girls involved as possible,” IFYHA Recruitment and Retention Director Catie Canavan said. “Unfortunately, with (only) one sheet of ice, it makes it harder. But Welcome Back Week, because we have four high schools in Idaho Falls, it’s a time where our kids that haven’t seen each other for a while get to see their good friends again. We focus on team building; we focus on getting our skills back, because our kids haven’t skated in six months, and then just getting ready for the season.”
The IFYHA has been trying to recruit younger girls to the program so they will be more apt to stick with it for the long haul. Over the summer, the association set up booths at a pair of events. It handed out promotional materials, spread the word about the upcoming season and had a synthetic sheet of ice on hand for kids to come by to skate.
“We’ve been on the recruiting trail all summer,” said Rifelj, who is in his fourth year as president. “With two events, we’ve probably handed out 500 Try Hockey for Free posters, probably 700 foam pucks. We’ll follow up and call all those people.”
The IFYHA has 65 girls in its program, which is about a 5 percent increase over the last five years, according to Rifelj. That may not sound like a huge boost, but Rifelj is pleased the numbers are headed in the right direction.
“We would like to grow it by 10-15 percent,” Rifelj said. “We want to grow it to a spot where our girls don’t need to play co-ed. They can just go and play girls hockey — where we have a 19U team that’s full, a 14U team that’s full, and a 12U team that’s full. That’s a long-term goal for us.”
Right now, the IFYHA has two girls teams, at the 19U and 14U levels.
Since Idaho Falls is not a longtime hockey hotbed — the nearest NHL franchise is in Denver, nearly 600 miles away — attracting and retaining female players is a challenge.
“There’s probably 200-300,000 people on this side of the state, and (only) 60 girls that play hockey,” Rifelj said. “I don’t know what that percentage is, but it’s not very good. It’s not on the top of minds for girls or parents of girls in this region to go and put their girls in hockey.”
Rifelj and his staff are trying to change that perception. But it can be an uphill climb because of a couple different factors.
“I don’t think it’s unique for any other program, but our girls have the choice of playing co-ed or just girls,” Rifelj said. “Most of them tend to play co-ed to a certain age and then they morph into girls-only hockey generally in that checking age. We don’t lose a lot of girls. We try to focus on them with a certain amount of fun activities through team bonding.”
The boys program has been steady for a number of years with 260 participants and 16 teams. Rifelj figures the retention rate for the guys is about 90 percent.
The opening week of practice is filled with cross-ice games and other fun activities to keep the atmosphere upbeat.
The IFYHA runs its official practices and games from early October to mid-March, so the players, coaches and association members are excited to get the season in full swing.
“It’s going to be heaven to get back to it, to be honest,” Rifelj said. “I’m chomping at the bit. We’re gearing up.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.