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Kids show they have star-level skills

by Adam Schwartz

"When we were looking at this we wanted to do something unique. ... There was no vehicle for kids between 9-11 years old to take part in an NHL-style skills competition. It's something different and the kids love it."
-- Warren Berke, president of RDW sports marketing

The NHL All-Stars won't be the only ones displaying their talent in a skills competition during All-Star Weekend in Montreal. The Ace Bailey GotSkills Competition, featuring squirt- and peewee-level players, gives the youngsters a chance to get involved as well as the game's elite players.

The youth hockey players will go through basically the same events as the NHL All-Stars during the Honda NHL All-Star SuperSkills on Saturday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

While the players are just 9-12 years old, they still can do some damage -- consider that Cole Redl has the hardest shot so far this season at 67 miles per hour. 

Warren Berke, President of RDW Sports Marketing, which is the company that puts together the skills competition, has been at the forefront of orchestrating the competitions in nine NHL markets.

"Ace's GotSkills is a community outreach project for squirt- and peewee-aged players," Berke said. "Our major objective is for the hockey players to have fun while testing their skills against skills of other players throughout the United States, and this is our first year in Canada with the All-Star Game. We're basically an NHL community outreach program and we go to local markets to promote and develop the sport.

"The way that it works is that it runs from October through March in local competitions. The nationals, which is about the top 22 players from each of the NHL club markets, is held the third week in June."

While it is more common for youth hockey players to just play games, Berke believes holding a skills competition offers players a different experience that they will remember and leave them with a lasting impression of the game.

"When we were looking at this we wanted to do something unique," Berke said. "Having games and tournaments throughout the United States in youth hockey is pretty typical. There was no vehicle for kids between 9-11 years old to take part in an NHL-style skills competition. It's something different and the kids love it."

Berke was adamant about reaching as many kids as possible, which is why there are two sets of competitions -- one that features traveling players and one that highlights house-league players.

"The important part is that we want to reach everybody," Berke said. "Tournaments are always designed for the elite players. If you take the USA Hockey pyramid, the top is elite players, but we want to include everyone down to the bottom. So by doing the house-league competitions we include the recreational skaters and really the bulk of the people playing. If we ever combined the house league and the travel league together it wouldn't be a competition because the travel-league kids would always win. It's a nice opportunity for everyone."

Berke and RDW are grateful for the NHL's support in their venture and not only provide competitions in NHL markets, but also spread the word of hockey to non-traditional hockey markets, such as Alabama.

"The other part is that this is a turnkey program," Berke said. "The way that it works is that we are supported by the NHL and the NHL clubs. We have a team of people that go into each market and conduct competitions. It depends on how many kids there are in each market on whether or not we do it. We just did Chicago, which was wonderful and we held the competition in the United Center and the week before we were in Nashville and we went to Alabama, which is about two hours from Nashville and that really helped getting down to the true community outreach. We conducted two competitions in Alabama and they were both full, one for the house league and one for the travel leagues."

The fastest skater and the shootout are two of the more popular events with the kids, and Berke knows that to best measure success the best equipment is necessary.

"They like the fastest skater, but they also like the shootout because that's a really fun event that all of the kids participate in, including the goalies," Berke said. "It's based on the NHL shootout. We have top-of-the-line timing equipment like radar guns and great technology. It's entertainment as well as a skills tournament."

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