SEATTLE -- As director of beginners' hockey for the Seattle Junior Hockey Association, Jerry Weir is accustomed to the crowd milling about last Friday night for a "Try Hockey for Free Youth Clinic" at the Lynnwood Ice Center. There were kids on skates on the ice, some barely able to stand, others literally making strides. Off ice, kids and their parents wrestled with skates, snapped on equipment, procured pull-over "penny jerseys" and, in varying forms of glee and apprehension and walking-on-skates skills, moved toward the rink surface.
The scene in three words: Chaos. Fun. Memorable.
"We're doing the same things we do at any try-hockey clinic," said Weir, big smile on his face after giving this reporter a bear hug (he was my son's power skating instructor in 2008). "One goal I always have is I want to make it every kid's best day all week."
That worked for Weir and his assemblage, which included an impressive number of helper-instructors who play for Coach Weir's under-14 Lady Admirals Select team, plus members of the under-16 Seattle Thunderbirds Junior B boys team that plays in the Western States Hockey League with home games at Olympic View Arena in Montlake Terrace. Even Olympic bronze medalist Kelly Stephens-Tysland (2006 U.S. women's hockey team) was there helping out.
More than 60 boys and girls between four and 10 years old attended the clinic, co-sponsored by NHL Seattle, the Seattle Juniors organization and the Greater Seattle Hockey League, the area's largest adult hockey league with 2,000-plus members playing at various rinks.
"Every parent wants to capture a child's first step," said Weir. "We almost can't wait for them to walk. The cool part of these clinics is you have a great opportunity to do it all over again with the first time on skates."
"My daughter [Sisi, 10] was on skates once at a birthday party," said Bo Wen, a Northgate resident for five years after moving from Beijing. "She wanted to try again. She likes sports. We like her to try many things."
Sisi looked happy on the ice. She was one of dozens of kids making shot attempts during one drill that offered many arms held-high cheers from instructors and helpers every time a puck or ball went into one of many mini-nets.
Wen said he "liked hockey when I saw games on TV as a child."
"This is an opportunity to learn more too," he said, getting ready to take a few more photos.
Andy Cole, who founded the Greater Seattle Hockey League, said a good number of GSHL players are converts from other sports who took up the game because their kids played.
"Some players feel the game is easier on the knees as they get older too," he said rinkside. "But the main reason is they join is because their kids play."
Kyle Boyd, NHL Seattle's director of youth and community development/training, offered his advice for first-time skaters of any age but especially the youngsters on hand.
"These clinics are a great experience for the kids to get some equipment on and get comfortable," he said at the Lynnwood event. "As for skating, I suggest you practice your balance wearing your skates off-ice. Do a few dances, leaning this way and that way, then taking it slow when you get out there.
"It can be really tricky to figure out how to go from walking to shifting and gliding from one side to the other. But once you learn it, it makes hockey even more fun."
These events thrive on friends bringing friends to the sport. Two 10-year-olds, Muriel and Lekha, were smiling ear to ear waiting to get out on the ice. Muriel plays for the Washington Wild girls hockey program. Lekha might have a bit of a head start on trying hockey: She competes locally in a roller derby league.
"I have been on ice accidentally," said Lekha, matter-of-fact. "Our roller rink froze over once."
For her part, Muriel, now accomplished as a skater and player, is the product of a friend referral too.
"She came home from school one day in first grade and asked 'Can I try hockey?' Uh, I said, I guess so. What happened was her new best friend in first grade had moved from New Jersey, where she grew up skating and playing."
Maggie Daheim said her son, Loki, 5, had skated once at a free-skate session. Loki was holding his own and was spotted later chattering to his parents about the night event. The family watches NHL games at home; Dad Paul Webber, grew up in Altona, Manitoba, which is 60 miles from Winnipeg.
"It's a hard concept for the little ones at first," said Daheim. "I'm hoping my son being half-Canadian will help. Plus, 'Loki' is such a great hockey name."