NHL's Learn to Play program big hit in Nashville

Saturday, 01.30.2016 / 5:44 PM
Bill Price  - Editor in Chief

NASHVILLE -- There were more spills than goals, and a few puddles as well, but the countless smiles at the IntelliCentrics Ice Rink at Bridgestone Winter Park made it all worth it.

As part of the NHL's Learn to Play program, 14 Nashville youngsters hit the outdoor ice rink Saturday next to Bridgestone Arena – site of the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game (5 p.m., NBCSN, SN, TVAS) Sunday, continuing to learn the game of hockey and clearly having fun.

Learn to Play is a program aimed at removing access barriers for U.S. and Canadian youth by providing children ages 4-8 free head-to-toe equipment and at least six weeks of on-ice training at no charge. The Nashville Predators are part of a pilot program. On Saturday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the program will launch nationally later this year.

"It makes me feel like a kid again, like I've never grown up," said former Nashville Predator Dan Keczmer, now a member of the Nashville Predators Hockey Alumni Association. "All the kids I've come across enjoy stepping on the ice for the first time. It's a little bit scary at times, but exciting. I think the kids out there had smiles on their faces."

Keczmer and Jayson More, another former Predator, were on the ice with the kids along with former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch and Jocelyn and Monique Lamoureux, members of the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team, going over skating, stickhandling and shooting drills.

The kids, all under 8, are part of the G.O.A.L. (Get Out And Learn) Program based at the Ford Ice Center in Nashville, and were on the ice for just the third time ever.

Zack Johnson, hockey coordinator at the Ford ice Center, founded the G.O.A.L. program 10 years ago. He says the program tries to introduce the game to 300 kids per year, and then funnel them up to the other local hockey programs.

"It's a way to get a lot of kids to the sport that might not have the means or the knowledge of it," said Johnson, who saw the program expand from 145 kids to 220 in one season. "It's huge for Nashville and hockey in Nashville."

But even bigger for the kids, who wouldn't let a wet ice surface due to sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s dampen their enthusiasm.

"Not only did they get to skate, they got to go swimming," Keczmer said.

"It was really fun," said player Cora Greeson.

Frank and Suzanne Correa, who moved to Nashville from Long Island 18 months ago, also were smiling as their son, Francisco, 7, took the ice for the just the second time. They admitted they were not hockey fans, but said the program, which is free and provides all the equipment, could change that.

"I have to take him to a Predators game someday," Frank Correa said.

Shannon Webster, coordinator of programs services for USA hockey, said introducing the kids to hockey and fun they have makes going to work even better.

"Just seeing a kid smile when he gets on the ice," Webster said. "Just learning the littlest new thing, the smile when they turn to the parents afterward is priceless."

Back to top