Hockey Scores With Area Youth

Dozens of Root Elementary kindergartners focus intently on the cluster of bright orange balls in the center of the school gym. As instructions are given, plastic blades fidget against the floor. A few hockey sticks absent-mindedly drift upward to touch shoulders or heads.

With a shout of “Go!” players run, sticks extended, determined to capture more balls than the other team. One by one balls are tapped, slapped and smacked into opposing goals. This simple game teaches some basic skills and one important idea: Hockey is fun.

Thomas Whitmeyer-Weathers, who leads the class, hopes that a few of the kids will stay excited about the sport long after his visit ends.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without hockey,” said Whitmeyer-Weathers, who grew up in the area playing hockey and is now an assistant with Canes Youth and Amateur Hockey (CYAH).

Since 2002, the Hurricanes In-School Program has introduced the sport to thousands of area kids. Last year more than 10,000 kids in Wake County participated in the program, said Shane Willis, Youth and Amateur Hockey coordinator for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hockey is growing steadily in the South, not just among adult fans of the pro game, but in schools and cul-de-sacs throughout the region. Because of CYAH’s outreach programs, hundreds of area kids have had the chance to play ice hockey. Outside the rinks, many more have strapped on inline skates for roller hockey.

Growth of hockey

“I can see the development of our kids at the youngest levels,” Willis said. “With the 10- and 11-year-olds, the skill level now, compared to three years ago when I started, is amazing.”

For the 2014-15 season, between 1,600 and 2,000 players 18 and younger are participating in organized youth hockey in the Triangle, according to Willis. For the same time period, between 1,400 and 1,600 adults are playing amateur hockey.

“When the Canes first got here, no one was playing hockey. Now the kids are playing,” Willis said.

“Hockey brings so many elements to the table that are positive for kids,” he said.

“Being around a team atmosphere, learning respect, accountability, the friendships you make, the fitness level that hockey creates because you’re always moving, the eye-hand coordination, the reaction time that these kids will grow into, really make the sport stand above other sports here in the South. A lot more people are starting to see that.”

CYAH also promotes hockey through its partnerships with local groups including the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association and the Polar Ice House.

“I’ve definitely seen it over the past 10 years growing in a positive direction,” said Mike Grabowski, Polar Ice House Hockey League director. “When the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup (in 2006) we saw a huge boost off that.”

He also saw more kids wanting to learn hockey after the NHL All-Star Game in 2011 and after the Winter Olympics in 2010 when the U.S. men reached the gold-medal round with Canada.

Players and parents

Ultimately, youth hockey owes its continued popularity to its enthusiastic players and their parents.

Shellee Fischetto’s two sons, Joe, 9, and Nick, 11, play roller hockey and ice hockey.

“They’ve grown up with sticks in their hands,” said Fischetto, who grew up in Maine and now lives in Holly Springs. “When they were young, we let them Rollerblade in the house on the hardwood floors. That’s how they learned to skate.”

A.J. Jourdan of Raleigh calls himself “a red-neck hockey fan,” and has had Hurricanes season tickets since 2000.

“This whole hockey scene here is just great,” he said. “It’s amazing, the participation in all levels of hockey.”

His son Jack, 13, has been playing hockey for eight years and has been refereeing games since he was 11.

“We started going to Canes games, then he got some Rollerblades and learned to skate,” Jourdan said of his son. “He just wanted to play.”

Dan Williams from Wilson County drives 45 minutes to Cary’s Polar Ice House twice a week so his daughter Hannah can play hockey in the Polar Ice House U12 House League.

“I never imagined, living in North Carolina, I’d be a hockey dad,” said Williams, who also grew up in Maine. “It’s been great seeing her enjoy it as much as I do. She just loves hockey.”

Hannah, a tall, athletic 13-year-old, is the only girl on team Fury. She’s tried several sports — soccer, basketball and softball — but hockey is her favorite by far.

“I enjoy playing with the boys, to just be part of the team,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a girl or a guy, I’m just a hockey player.”

Although she sometimes she has to counter assumptions about the sport.

“Everyone thinks hockey is rough. It has this bad rep, but there’s no checking (in the younger age divisions),” Hannah said.

That’s not to say she hasn’t come home with bruises. During one recent game, “I just wanted the puck, and I hit the boards full blast,” she said. “I just didn’t think about stopping.”

That enthusiasm is echoed by her teammate Ryan Chase, 11, of Holly Springs, who was asked after a 6-0 win what he likes about hockey.

“The exhilarating part of just winning,” he said. “It’s intense!”

Cost of hockey

But one challenge to growing the sport is its perceived high participation costs.

“Compared to playing soccer, where you just need a pair of cleats, in hockey there’s a lot more gear involved — helmets, skates, gloves, sticks and everything else that goes into it,” said Grabowski, with the Ice House. “There’s an initial cost that is kind of terrifying to someone who’s not familiar with hockey.”

But Grabowski and Willis say there are ways for kids to try hockey without a lot of upfront costs. Both cite the First Goal program, a partnership between the Hurricanes and the Polar Ice House.

“The rink has purchased 50 to 60 sets of gear for kids aged 5 through 12, and we run a four-week class as an introduction to hockey,” Grabowski said. “We give kids gear, we give them skates, so parents don’t have to purchase everything up front.”

More than 225 kids who had never played before signed up for First Goal after the Ice House ran a series of Groupon promotions last year at each of the three Ice House locations: Cary, Garner and Wake Forest. Grabowski says the Ice House plans to offer the discount again in 2015.

“We just want to excite the kids about the sport,” Willis said of the First Goal program. “Some of them have never picked up a hockey stick in their life.”

Polar Ice House Cary
1410 Buck Jones Road, Cary
(919) 460-2756

Polar Ice House Garner
103 New Rand Road, Garner
(919) 861-7465

Dreamsports Center
1016 Investment Blvd., Apex
(919) 387-2955

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