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Teaching Hockey, Touching Lives

How the Flyers Learn To Play Rookie Program has made hockey accessible

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Over its four-year existence, the Philadelphia Flyers Learn to Play Rookie Program has quickly grown to being one of the most popular and successful across the league-wide initiative the National Hockey League and National Hockey League Players Association launched in every market where there is an NHL team. 

The Flyers Rookie program provides families with affordable access to the sport of ice hockey for their sons and daughters ages five to nine. Included within a single participation fee, is free head-to-toe hockey equipment, top-notch and age- appropriate hockey instruction from certified coaches, led by Flyers Alumni, in an atmosphere designed to be both fun and safe.

Rob Baer, the Flyers Amateur and Youth Hockey program director, and Brad Marsh, who jointly serves as the Flyers director of Community Development and president of the Flyers Alumni Association, oversee the Learn to Play program. 

"My personal motto has always been, 'Work hard, have fun.' I believe that's also the best way to teach kids to play a sport. Expect them to they try their very best and embrace being part of a team, and then help to make it fun for them. That's how you create passion not only for the sport but for everyday life,"  Marsh said.

While the basic purpose of the Flyers Learn to Play Rookie Program is to teach hockey skills and the importance of teamwork and structure to kids, the program also can have major positive impact on children's lives. Here are two examples of the real-life impact that the Rookie Program has had on participating kids and families.

Jeremy's Story

Deborah Rhodes is a single mother of two daughters and a son named Jeremy. A disabled military veteran who herself grew up with hardship through the foster care system, she was not a hockey fan. 

"I didn't like sports at all, any sports," she recalls. 

"But when Jeremy was about six, he took to the Flyers. I looked into how he could play hockey. He was going through a traumatizing time. His father, due to substance abuse issues, was no longer able to be in his life. I felt that learning to play hockey could be good for Jeremy. It wasn't about me not wanting to be at cold rinks, watching a sport I didn't understand or like. It was about my son. Unfortunately, hockey is a very expensive sport; just the equipment alone."

In doing research, she found out the Flyers Learn to Play Rookie program was coming to Oaks, PA. What's more, she could manage the participation fee, whereas other youth hockey programs were prohibitively expensive once the cost of instruction and equipment was figured into the equation.

"That was like a godsend to be able to provide hockey to Jeremy, and he absolutely loved it. At the beginning, because it was his first time on the ice or playing hockey, he fell down a lot and couldn't control the puck. But the instructors were so patient with him, and he really loved coming to the rink. So much so that, I remember one time where he had the flu and had to stay home from school but he begged me to still be able to go to his Learn to Play session," Rhodes recalled.

Through the Learn to Play program, Jeremy found a positive outlet in his young life; a routine that he loved, and a supportive environment where he thrived. Before long, Deborah herself became smitten with the game of hockey and her two daughters also had interest in playing.

"My middle child, Alexis, is on the autism spectrum. She did Learn to Play herself. My oldest also played for a bit. Even I started playing. Alex was not very verbal at the time, but she started to enjoy the game," Deborah said. 

"The Flyers did a couple really amazing things for my family, that went above and beyond Learn to Play. First of all, they gave us tickets to the Flyers Wives Carnival. Jeremy had an amazing time that he still remembers like it was yesterday. Later, he got to participate in Mites on Ice, which was a thrill to him. When Rob Baer found out Alex is on the austism spectrum, he got us suite tickets to a Flyers game and made sure my daughter was provided with head phones so the noise in the building did not affect her. The sensory-friendly parts of the experience made it a great night for her, too, and it would have been too much without it."

The family has since relocated to San Diego. Jeremy is now nine years old, and remains passionate about playing hockey. He plays for a local youth hockey team. Although his older sisters no longer play, Deborah said it was a positive experience for them. Deborah herself plays recreation hockey with a local veterans team. 

The family as a whole, and Jeremy and his sisters individually have come a long way.

"We were essentially homeless for a time before things improved. My friends were my surrogate family; a couch here, some assistance there. When Jeremy and then Alex starting playing, our support system grew, and our hockey family became a huge part of our lives. For example, if Jeremy was playing on one rink and his sister on another, the other parents would offer to help one of the kids with their skates or go take video for me on the other rink so I could watch both kids playing. That meant the world to me, and still does,"  Rhodes said.

"We are living in San Diego now, yes, but we are Flyers fans for life. I can't say enough about what the organization and the Learn to Play program has given to my kids and to our family. It was more than just a gift. Like I said, it was a godsend. No one can do it alone in life, and we weren't alone. It meant so much more than just the practices and games on the ice. It was a tool for life."

Rhodes, who is a social worker specializing in assisting the homeless of San Diego, said that hockey promotes aspects of self-care and self-esteem as well as trust and cooperation. It also provides opportunities to pay the game forward to others in small but meaningful ways.

"Money is still tight, but we're doing better. Even if we weren't, there are always people whose situations are worse than yours. So after Jeremy outgrew his original equipment, we donated it for someone else. It was given to us, and it wouldn't have been right to sell it," she said.


Toby's Story 

Toby True is a longtime hockey fan -- a Bruins devotee -- who has also played the game. He relocated to the Philadelphia area a couple years ago. His son, also named Toby, started the Learn to Play program at the Skatium in Havertown in March 2019.  

"We signed my son up for skating a couple of times previously, and he didn't really take to it. It went OK, but he wasn't thrilled with it. He'd been to a couple of Flyers games and liked it well enough, but I wouldn't say that was life-changing for him, either," the elder True recalled.

"I talked it over with my wife. We discussed whether it was worth taking another kick at the can, and buying the equipment. A friend of mine told me about the Learn to Play program, and raved about it. When I first told Toby about it, he was kind of lukewarm. He's not the most physical of kids by nature; kind of timid and shy. He was the kid on the perimeter of the playground."

True's son, however, was hooked when his dad showed him a photo of a Rookie Program participant decked out in his Flyers jersey and head-to-toe gear. The boy's enthusiasm level increased tenfold when his dad told him he'd get the same gear, and it would be his to keep no matter what. 

"Seeing the gear excited Toby. We signed him up and took him for his fitting. He loved it. He got his gear roughly a month before the start of the program. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that he put the equipment on every single day. That was a great way to get him excited about the program before he even started," True said.

When True took his son for the first Rookie Program session in Havertown, they were greeted in the locker room by Marsh. 

"I didn't recognize who it was at first. Brad is huge -- very tall, still extremely fit -- but I just thought initially it was a nice, grandfatherly man asking my boy about his cool new equipment. When I saw him on the ice with the kids, I asked someone who it was. Then it clicked with me. I remembered his name as a longtime NHL player," True said. 

Young Toby had a great time at his first session, and every one that followed, and has since continued to play. He has fallen in love with the sport the same way his dad did as a kid -- with one exception. 

"Toby has become a big-time Flyers diehard. I'll never get him to root for my Bruins. I'm kinda mad about that," he joked. "No, but in all seriousness, the program has been amazing. Toby has blossomed. His self-confidence. His ability to make friends -- there are a couple teammates of his who I think will be his best friends for a lot of years to come. He's come out of his shell, and I couldn't be any happier or prouder."

In October, Toby and his teammates had an opportunity to participate in a Mites on Ice session during intermission of a Flyers home game against the Dallas Stars. Gritty was on the ice, brandishing a lasso.

The first kid Gritty nabbed: none other than Toby. 

"Toby's buddy grabbed on to try to 'rescue' him, and Gritty towed both of the boys all over around the ice. We were hysterical laughing in the stands, and Toby and his teammate absolutely loved it, too. He's almost as obsessed with Gritty as he is with the Flyers," True said, chuckling at the memory.

True said that the Flyers Learn to Play Rookie Program has been life-changing for his young son, whereas previous attempts to introduce the game to Toby had not had nearly the same impact. The instruction has been first-rate, and Toby's on-ice skills have improved very rapidly along with his enjoyment and confidence in off-ice interactions.

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