For the last eight weeks, twenty-five kids between the ages of seven and twelve have been learning how to play street hockey at the Goelet A.C. Beuf Community Center in Northern Phoenix – but during their season’s championship game Wednesday evening, they got a surprise visit from Howler, the mascot for the Coyotes.
Howler surprised the Phoenix Play Ball Hockey League at their final game of the 2016 season, bringing autographs for all the kids and customized jerseys for the four coaches who ran the league this winter.
His visit was a part of the contributions made by the Arizona Coyotes to the program this season, which included donated sticks and goalie gear for the players and jerseys for the kids to wear during their games. The added equipment and jerseys helped off-set the costs of the league for the City of Phoenix, who charge parents just $20 for the eight week winter league and rely on volunteer coaches to help the kids learn how to play hockey.
In a 5-2 victory for the red team in a split-squad game on the final day, it was easy to see how the kids had learned to love the game. A handful of the players were proud returnees from previous seasons as the ball hockey league hit its fourth year of existence, and a handful had their own gloves and sticks – for a number of parents sitting on the sidelines who grew up without hockey, it had become easy over the eight-week seasons to see how quickly their children fell in love with the game.
Hockey fans from north of Arizona may be surprised to see that outdoor ball hockey is a winter sport in the desert, but it’s the perfect activity for the mild January and February months that the Phoenix area experiences. It’s an inexpensive but fun after school activity, which is part of the reason that the Coyotes push to see it grow around the valley.
The league started with a few sessions of pure skills development, teaching the players stick handling, passing, shooting, and safety rules to minimize injuries. Despite varying skill levels for the players involved, the league pushed to see as many players finish the season on an even playing level as possible. Every player got to play every position throughout the season, and players rotated in and out of goal each period of the league’s three-period games to ensure that all the participants even got a chance in net.
As the final game played out, program director Dave Adams said it was easy to see how well the players picked things up.
“The first few games, the balls would go flying way out of bounds,” he said during the final game of the year. “Now it’s obvious how much control the players have learned in just eight weeks. We’d still like to invest in a portable rink, but the kids are doing much better at keeping the ball on the court even without it for now.”
It isn’t just the skill level that’s grown, either. The program itself has gained traction in the last few years, with more players joining over each of the past four seasons and more players sticking with it from year to year.
The goal, ultimately, is to see the program grow enough to hold multiple ball hockey leagues around Phoenix – and for good reason. Lyndsey Fry, Olympic Silver medalist and founder of Lyndsey Fry Hockey, has emphasized in the past that street and roller hockey are the best ways to get kids involved in hockey early on; the development of ball hockey leagues that don’t require pricey equipment and extensive skating prowess help encourage that involvement.
Watching the players on Wednesday night, it was easy to see the proof in that.