The True North Youth Foundation (TNYF) recently embraced a new NHL initiative for underprivileged children to learn how to play hockey. Children between the ages of 8 and 9 are carefully chosen by the school division to attend the program once a week for ten weeks at their local community arena. The children are provided with free equipment from the NHL over a ten week period and are also being monitored by Hockey Canada and Hockey Manitoba. Not only will they watch the children's individual progress during the program, they will continue to do so to see if they still skate and/or play hockey once the program has finished.
There are approximately 230 children currently participating in the Learn to Play program at the Keith Bodley Arena. Justin Kurtz, Local Manager, and Thomas Steen, Local Coordinator, are in charge of the Learn to Play program and teach the children the skills they need to learn how to skate and play hockey. Having two former professional hockey players as coaches is very fitting for the program as they both have a vast amount of knowledge and experience. Additionally, they bring awareness to the community and that helps motivates the children. Kurtz and Steen live in Manitoba, teaching this program is a way for them to give back to the community.
Thomas Steen, former Winnipeg Jet and Learn to Play Coordinator, says that he teaches because of his "love and passion for the sport". Teaching the children brings him as much personal satisfaction as playing hockey minus the competiveness of the game. Teachers and parents sit in the stands watching the children evolve and build self-confidence. Every week Steen and Kurtz receive praises from parents on the program and how grateful they are for their child to have this opportunity. Justin Kurtz, Local Manager, says "seeing how far the children have come since the first lesson and the week to week improvements they make is very special." Dwayne Green, Executive Director of True North Youth Foundation, says, "the program has allowed the foundation to expand our reach to schools in communities that haven't been able to participate in the Hockey Academy." Similar to the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy, Steen and Kurtz rely on volunteers to help with the program. Volunteers help get the children ready on and off the ice as well as running drills. Individuals volunteering include parents, teachers and alumni hockey players.
At the halfway point of the Learn to Play's first year, Steen says, "it's very rewarding to see the children get excited. Witnessing the children's attitudes change and seeing how they become more excited and talkative is one of the most satisfying and humbling moments of the program." He adds, it is one of the most noticeable differences between being a player and coaching. As a coach you are more involved with the children through training and instruction, resulting in the ability to see and partake in a child's milestone. Justin Kurtz's perspective on coaching is "having the ability to focus on teaching and having patience." Having those skills will help you prepare the children grow and succeed.
Dwayne Green, Executive Director of the True North Youth Foundation, says that the program is receiving positive reviews not only from the students and parents, but also the school division. "It's a great feeling to know that we are touching so many people through this program. Seeing the children have fun and succeed is the most important part". As the program continues, more children will experience and learn what playing hockey is all about. Down the road the True North Youth Foundation (TNYF) will look into how the program is progressing and what other cities are doing with similar programs which will enhance the Learn to Play program.