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Having previously thought the on-ice portion of their hockey program had concluded for the year, members of the Capital City Crew had already received an unexpected treat with a practice at the RBC Center.
As it turned out, a bigger surprise was yet to come.
Participants of the program, which has given 32 kids from local Boys and Girls Club locations the opportunity to experience ice hockey for the first time, learned just before practice that they would be skating alongside Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal
. Staal was involved in the program prior this particular appearance, having donated 20 full sets of equipment earlier in the year.
“It’s an opportunity to give back to kids that would love and dream to play hockey, but it just doesn’t work because it can be expensive,” said Staal. “To give them a chance on the ice is pretty cool.”
The Capital City Crew Program, the first of its kind in the Southeast, is part of the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative. Through a joint partnership between the Hurricanes, Boys and Girls Clubs of Wake County and the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association, the team was able to begin practicing seven weeks ago. The participants have been fully involved from the beginning, haven chosen the program’s name and logo themselves.
One wouldn’t know it from the way they skated on Tuesday, but most members of the team had only spent a total of eight hours on the ice in their entire lives up until that point. Their performance was an indication of how far they’ve come in such a short time.
“Basically the first practice was how to get up after you fall down,” said John Scott, the program’s director. “Now we get people falling down maybe three or four times in an entire practice. They’re able to shoot, they’re able to pass and they can skate with the puck.”
Equipment is provided courtesy of Staal and the NHL Player’s Association Goals and Dreams Foundation, and fees for ice time are covered by the Hurricanes’ Kids ‘N Community Foundation and the NHL Foundation. That amounts to no costs for the participants, making the sport highly accessible to those who would otherwise not have a chance to play.
Even though he’s played hockey for his whole life, beginning on the homemade rink on his parents’ sod farm in Canada, the high costs of playing hockey regularly isn’t lost on Staal.
“Growing up with three younger brothers, I know that it can be expensive to play the game of hockey," he said. "There’s a lot of youth equipment. I was fortunate enough to be the oldest so I kind of got the new stuff and the brothers got the hand-me-downs.”
The on-ice sessions are just one aspect of the program, as there is a life skills portion that will pick up where the practices left off. Although that hasn’t yet begun, Scott can already see potential long-term benefits.
“Off the ice their confidence has grown drastically because they’ve tried something new,” he said. “One player out there, the first five minutes of the practice the kid basically quit and gave up on it. After some talking from three or four coaches and even a parent, the kid came back on the ice, and now he is always the first one dressed and always the first one on the ice.”
Since they had the RBC Center ice surface all to themselves, the group was able to hit the ice ahead of schedule and get some work in well before Staal emerged to provide some coaching and showcase the skills that have made him on of the NHL’s elite players.
According to its organizers, that eagerness demonstrates what has made the Capital City Crew a successful program to date.
”We say in Boys and Girls Club work that you know you have a good program because kids vote with their feet,” said Hugh McLean, Director of the Wake Forest Boys and Girls Club. “If they don’t show back up, then it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. Attendance has been just about 100 percent every practice.”