As Ivan Ferraz watched his young son Cameron skate past him with ease, the proud father couldn’t help but beam with pride.
“I tried soccer with him, no interest,” Ferraz said. “I tried basketball, no interest. But he just loved the ice.”
Helping to foster Cameron’s passion for pucks was the Kids First Clinic, which had just finish ed up its most recent four-week program at Polar Ice in Chandler. The intro-to-ice course consists of four one-hour sessions designed to provide kids ages four to eight with a risk-free beginning to the sport of hockey.
Often, these kids are lacing up their skates and other equipment – provided free of charge by the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association and the Coyotes – for the very first time in their young lives.
“These kids come out here the first week and usually most of them can’t stand up,” said Scott Storkan, Coyotes Manager of Hockey Development. “By the fourth week they’re all moving around pretty well, taking shots like a regular hockey player. It’s a great introductory program. You can definitely see the progression from the first week to the fourth week.”
Kids First gives each child a set of rental equipment to be used during the four-week clinic, including a pair of rental skates provided by the rink. An equipment fitting session before the first on-ice clinic ensures that all parents and children are aware of the proper manner in which to dress the child. Ice time is donated by each local hockey rink, so the only cost associated with the program is a small monetary deposit, returned at the conclusion of the four weeks with the return of the rental equipment.
It’s a program that turns the early bumps and bruises typical with those learning to skate into unbridled joy, so much so that by the end of the program the coaching staff often has trouble convincing its students to leave the ice at the end of the session.
“He’s definitely gotten better,” Ferraz said of his son’s hockey skills. “Just today, watching him going backwards and making the right stops without any fear is amazing.”
At the grassroots level, the Kids First program helps those who love the sport to share their passion with the next generation. Retention rate in the sport is high, with Kids First graduates advancing onto learn-to-skate or learn-to-play-hockey programs and ultimately to more organized hockey and competitive youth leagues.
“We’re trying to grow the sport and we’re working hard in partnership with the Coyotes to get the word out that we’re out here trying to get these kids involved in a sport that’s getting big out West and in Arizona,” said Mindy French, Polar Ice Chandler youth hockey director. “The Kids First program provides parents with a great alternative if their kids are not quite ready for skating and hockey, because this is a program where they can get their children out on the ice to see if they like it or not.
“We’ve been doing this program for a long time and we’ve had kids come through the Kids First program who have taken to the sport so well that they are now playing on travel teams and have moved themselves up through the ranks.”
Beginning that climb is Kaiden Willa, whose father Scott watched as his five-year-old son skated around the ice with his fellow graduates.
“We’ve made the decision after this to go ahead and put him in a full-time program with regular practices and such,” Scott Willa said. “What a great opportunity to give him a chance to see if this is really what he’s interested in. He loves it. He puts on his gear everyday at home and loves to run around in it. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Kids First clinics have been in operation in the Valley since 1999 when the Polar Ice Facilities started them and have helped introduce the sport to thousands of kids. Other rinks have jumped on board in the past few years with clinics being held at the Alltel Ice Den and Arcadia.
Equipment donated through the Kids First program comes courtesy of OneGoal – a coalition of USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, International Hockey Industry Association, National Hockey League, the NHL Players Association, rinks, equipment manufacturers, retailers and many other involved in minor hockey across North America. Designed to help break down entry barriers to the sport, the non-profit organization’s mission is to increase the participation in youth hockey.
For information on the Kids First program and how to register for future classes, visit the Coyotes new Hockey Development page at phoenixcoyotes.com/hockeydevelopment.