There is nothing like watching a child fall in love with the game of hockey, especially before they even step on the ice for the first time.
We saw that on Wednesday evening, when kids who are participating in this year’s Little Penguins Learn to Play program picked up their free head-to-toe equipment at 13 Dick’s Sporting Goods locations throughout the region.
They couldn’t contain their excitement at receiving full sets of Reebok SC87 equipment, including skates, stick, helmet, gloves, pants, shoulder pads, shin pads, elbow pads, an equipment bag as well as an official Little Penguins Jersey and helmet stickers.
One little girl was so eager to get started that she tried to carry the box – which was twice her size – out of the store herself. Another little boy decided to test out his new equipment right there in the store, putting on his skates and gloves and practicing faceoffs with his new stick.
Thankfully, the 1,000 area youths signed up won’t have to wait too long to put on their new gear and get on the ice for the first time, as programs begin this weekend and continue through April. They are offered at 25 rinks throughout the region, and four girls-only programs offered as well.
The program, now in its sixth consecutive year, is designed to introduce the game to boys and girls ages 4-8 – with the unique advantage that each participating child receives free, brand-new hockey equipment, including skates. They are receiving this opportunity through the generosity of Sidney Crosby, Reebok, Dick’s Sporting Goods, the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“The goal is to continue to create opportunities for more boys and girls in the Pittsburgh area to take up hockey,” Crosby said. “Sometimes, with the expense of skates and other equipment, it’s a challenge for these kids and their parents to get started. This program makes it a little easier for them – they can receive head-to-toe equipment at no charge and learn the game in an organized and fun way.”
What makes this program so fulfilling is that the majority of kids who enroll in the program (over 5,200 to date) to get a chance to play hockey they may not have had otherwise end up loving it and sticking with it. Pennsylvania has experienced significant growth at the 10-and-under age group over the past five years (120 percent – leads the entire nation), and much of this growth can be directly related to the program. There is a retention rate after Year One of 94 percent and a conversation rate of over 40 percent annually.
“One of the goals of this program is to not only get kids to start playing the game but to keep them playing for a lifetime,” Penguins Executive Director of Strategic Planning Rich Hixon said. “Currently, our conversion rates are nearly 50% of all participants who continue to play hockey well after this program. To provide children with head-to-toe hockey gear year after year is nothing short of a tribute to the generosity and character of not only Sidney Crosby, but to the efforts of Reebok, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. “