For the sixth straight year USA Hockey will host its annual Try Hockey For Free Day, an initiative encouraging children ages 4 through 9 to participate in the sport for the first time.
The first of their two events will be Nov. 7, with the second taking place Feb. 20, 2016, as part of Hockey Weekend Across America.
Try Hockey For Free Day is part of USA Hockey's Come Play Hockey Month in November.
According to USA Hockey, Try Hockey For Free Day has opened the doors to hockey for nearly 100,000 children, including a record 28,446 in 2013-14, and optimism is high it will come close to or even exceed that mark this year.
"The good news is it’s become kind of a staple on the hockey calendar," said Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of development. "The one this weekend comes at a time when everybody is excited and enthused about the start of the season. The NHL is in full swing as is the American Hockey League. College hockey and junior hockey are both in full swing. It’s a great time for everyone across the country to join forces to give families that haven’t been exposed to hockey an opportunity to try the sport."
USA Hockey reported 14,767 new players nationwide tried youth hockey at Try Hockey For Free Day events in November 2014, another number Kelleher hopes to match this year when nearly 500 sites in 48 states will be represented, led by Wisconsin with 63 host sites. Parents and guardians can find a location closest to them and register at TryHockeyForFree.com. The site includes a map that will display the closest participating rinks to a person's location. Equipment is available for families to borrow, and no prior skating or hockey experience is required to participate.
"A lot of these kids and families that we'll see come to the rinks are kids that may know a little about hockey, but they're also kids that are finishing up a fall sport so they may be looking for that winter activity," Kelleher said. "Maybe [parents] see a [hockey] game on TV and try and bring their kids out to this opportunity to try something that could be their winter activity."
Try Hockey For Free Day was conceived 10 years ago and drew close to 200 children at a facility in Denver as a collaborative effort between equipment manufacturers, USA Hockey, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association in an attempt to figure out how to grow the game. One city grew to one state, Connecticut, which had 15 rinks offering the program. Once facilities and youth associations began to support the cause, it evolved into nearly 500 rinks in one day.
"We've gotten great support from the League and all the NHL clubs," Kelleher said. "It kind of points everyone in the same direction nationally. People can put their own local spin on it. They can do what they want that works for their club or their market in the NHL. But they're all headed in the same direction and it gives a real focus to it."
All United States-based NHL teams support Try Hockey For Free in their respective areas, with the Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals hosting various events.
"That's what makes this program such a huge success," Kelleher said. "The League, No. 1, and all 23 U.S. clubs, understand that we want to grow the game. Grow the game means different things for all of us. But at the end of it we want to see more kids participating. We want to see more families engaged in the game and we want to reach out and introduce new families to the game.
"Try Hockey For Free Day would not be as successful as it has been without the support of the League and all the member clubs."
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNHL