There’s no doubt about it – playing hockey is an expensive endeavor. The cost for equipment, ice-time and travel fees quickly adds up for families involved in the game. This is why roughly 600 children in the Pittsburgh area are ecstatic about the free gear they received through the Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey program sponsored by the Penguins, Sidney Crosby
, Reebok and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
The 4-year-old Gaffney triplets, Jimmy, Sammy and Tyler, are no exception. They hit the ice every Wednesday night for learning sessions at the Airport Ice Rink in Moon Township. Since the boys first got outfitted in their Reebok SC-87 gear at Dick’s in January, they have been wearing their gear constantly.
“They have it on all the time,” father Mike Gaffney said. “They’re running around the house with it. They’re always wearing their gloves and helmet. They actually play hockey in the house all the time. They’re pretty excited.”
The Gaffney’s set up a little net in the kitchen so the boys can practice their shooting and puck handling. During Penguins’ games, the boys tune in on TV. They each have a jersey of their favorite player. Tyler sports a Crosby sweater, Sammy has an Evgeni Malkin
jersey and Jimmy dons Mario Lemieux’s classic “66” on his back.
Mike has taken the boys skating several times over the past few years and they have already picked up some of the basics.
“They can stand up and kind of walk around out on the ice," he said, "which is a good place to
start. They are all jazzed about being able to be out there with a stick and pucks and everything."
Hockey is a tradition that has passed through the Gaffney family. Mike’s father taught him to skate on frozen ponds in Massachusetts when he was 2 years old. He continued to play hockey as he grew up. Gaffney went from high school hockey to college hockey, and eventually played for the Detroit Vipers of the IHL, the Houston Aeros in the AHL and various other minor league teams. Now he is passing the game onto his boys, just like his dad once did with him.
Enabling local children who otherwise might not be able to play hockey is exactly what the Little Penguins program was designed to do. Mike and Jamie Gaffney are certainly grateful for the opportunity to finally get their boys in the game. When a neighbor phoned the Gaffney’s to tell them about the program, Mike drove out to the rink that night to sign the boys up for the program.
“Trying to buy equipment for three kids all at once is kind of tough,” Gaffney said. “When this came along, it was the perfect opportunity for us to get them on the ice and get equipment on them and get them into a regular program where they can learn and get better.”
The program at Airport Ice Rink runs two sessions per week for eight weeks. Each session consists of 30 kids, ages 4-10, and seven coaches. Jimmy, Sammy and Tyler will play every Wednesday night and their father is volunteering as one of the coaches in the program.
The program is run by Mark Petley, the manager of the Airport Ice Rink. Petley explained that at the first session the 30 kids were split into three groups based on their skill level. The beginners focus more on skating while the intermediate and advanced groups will do more puck control and passing drills, as well as skating. Petley uses various games and competitions throughout the session to keep the kids interested.
“We try to break them down based on ability,” Petley said. “That way we’re not holding the better kids back and we try to get each kid exactly what he needs to develop.”
Petley has run a hockey learning program since he first started at Airport Ice Rink three years ago. In that time he has never seen interest in the program like he did this year.
“We’ve been trying to get people into hockey, but for us to have the Pens do what they did, to market it and get it out there, I mean to have 60 kids overnight is truly amazing,” Petley said. “When you work in hockey and it’s your passion, to see an influx of kids like that, it’s amazing.”