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Hurricanes run to Eastern Conference Final lifting Learn to Play program

Enrollment in youth program already at more than 600

by Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / Staff Writer

The Carolina Hurricanes' success during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs is having a major impact on youth hockey in the Raleigh area.

The Hurricanes' Learn to Play: First Goal program started its fifth year May 1, and 245 boys and girls ages 5-9 signed up within 10 minutes. After one week 670 children are on board, with the goal of 900 within reach. Already more than 100 girls have signed up, compared to a total of 143 in 2018.

The wave of excitement has coincided with the Hurricanes' run to the Eastern Conference Final during their first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance since 2009. Game 1 of the best-of-7 series against the Boston Bruins is at TD Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"I do believe that the excitement here [is] in Raleigh right now with what the Hurricanes have done," manager of youth and amateur hockey Shane Willis said. "Not only with the way they've played, but the way they're winning hockey games and the way this team is built. And the culture they're putting back into our community is as engulfing to me even more than the wins they're putting out each and every night.

"The way ownership and management have put these guys back into the community and what they're doing on the ice has just energized a program like this. The kids are seeing these guys and saying, 'I want to be an NHL player.' That's going to be a huge help to our program."

First Goal has grown from registering 250 children in its first year to more than 1,500 while expanding to include locations in Cary, Charlotte, Fort Bragg, Garner, Greensboro, Hillsborough, Wake Forest and Wilmington, North Carolina. Kids are provided equipment and seven on-ice skills sessions that include Hurricanes alumni Willis, Bates Battaglia and Jeff Daniels. Each participant this year also receives two tickets to a Hurricanes home game in 2019-20, a Hurricanes Kids Club membership and a graduation ceremony and certificate at the end of the program.

Learn to Play is a joint effort of the NHL and National Hockey League Players' Association that teaches children skills to succeed on the ice while building character traits to help them develop away from the game. The program partners with Pure Hockey, the largest equipment retailer in the United States, to provide head-to-toe equipment and on-ice lessons for a low registration fee.

"For me to go to the rink … it's so rewarding to go back," said Willis, who played 174 NHL games with the Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning and was hired by the Hurricanes on Sept. 8, 2011. "The smile on the kids' faces, the laughter, the hard work they put in, takes me back to where I came from. It was about people who volunteered their time each and every night at the rink to teach me and help me become a better-skilled player, to achieve what I was able to in the National Hockey League.

"It's exciting to see the growth here and what our youth hockey teams are doing at the highest levels. To get that level in a market that people continue to downplay it and say, 'Well, they're in the south,' it's very rewarding. The people here now, especially myself, know exactly what we have and what we're continuing to grow."

The Hurricanes enter the best-of-7 conference final on a six-game winning streak following a 6-0 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round. It's the longest in Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers history behind a seven-game run in 2006, when Carolina won the Stanley Cup.

Carolina also is 5-0 at PNC Arena during the postseason.

"Just the way this team performs, the speed they play at and then the push …," said Willis, who also works as a Hurricanes analyst on Fox Sports Carolinas broadcasts. "Being a former player, you know when you're in a loud building, especially at home and the support is there. It can take you to another level. We've seen that through the first two rounds."

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