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Welcome Back Week in Wisconsin means two things: Hockey and avoiding Packers football

By USA Hockey, 09/18/18, 8:00AM MDT

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Betsy McCrary is matriarch of the hockey-loving McCrarys and senior advisor to Wisconsin’s Sun Prairie Youth Hockey Association. For her, nothing beats the excitement and enthusiasm of Welcome Back Week, even if it is a bit frenzied. The big smiles and first strides are well worth it, as is the opportunity to reunite with familiar friends and new members of the Sun Prairie hockey community.

Making it happen is a team effort, and each year, McCrary and her compatriots turn their rink into a celebratory open house with ice time and equipment exchanges for the kids along with parent stations to answer all the usual questions, and even some unusual, like inquiries about what ingredients go into the association’s cookie dough for the annual sale. SPYHA volunteers also ride in parades and lead a social media blitz, all aimed at raising awareness and welcoming those who may be new to the sport.

On top of that orchestration, they also plan their season kickoff with an eye toward another great Wisconsin passion – football.

“This is going to sound sad, but certain things are sacred,” said McCrary. “So that means no Welcome Back to Hockey is scheduled when the Packers are playing.”

In all, it’s a grand effort that happens well before the opening faceoff.

“Honestly, things leading up to the season are so much busier than anybody ever understands,” said McCrary. “It’s busier than the actual hockey season. But we love it. Our whole family is super involved in hockey. It’s a huge part of our lives.”

McCrary’s husband plays and coaches, while her three sons play, coach and officiate. Her oldest son, now a senior at the University of Wisconsin, skated recently at USA Hockey’s Officiating Development Program Camp in Plymouth, Michigan. They’ve all grown up in the Sun Prairie Cardinals program, making memories they’ll cherish forever. For her part, Betsy has been a fixture supporting the association and its events, which also include robust Try Hockey for Free Days each season in partnership with USA Hockey.

“That is, by far, our biggest outreach tool that we have,” she said. “Sun Prairie is one of the top participating sites every year. We actually run two sessions of it each day, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to fit all the kids on the ice. We have 60 kids in each session. And guess who’s out there helping those kids? It’s our high school teams. It’s our coaches. It’s our 16U and 14U players. And that’s who those kids are making connections with – kids they see in school and their community every day.

“We don’t get to skate with the Blackhawks or the Red Wings, but that’s a part of what makes it phenomenal in our community. Our high school players are our role models. It’s not some superstar that they’re never going to see (again). This might be the kid down the street. And that’s the way that we build the hockey community.”

The association’s next Try Hockey for Free event – a girls-only gathering – is scheduled for Saturday, as part of USA Hockey’s Welcome Back Week. It’s part of a four-session series of Try Hockey events aimed specifically at female players in the Sun Prairie area, another indication of the association’s proactive efforts to make hockey an attractive choice for local families. And as the packed ice schedule indicates, those efforts are paying dividends.

“We’re growing at a reasonable rate,” said McCrary. We’re retaining kids, we’re bringing in new kids, and we try to work with every child that comes in. We’ve really worked hard to find places to develop kids at whatever level they’re at and make them comfortable.”

Since the 1970s, it’s been a winning formula for fun in Sun Prairie, which now boasts more than 400 families in its tight-knit hockey community.

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