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NHL follows Pens' example with Learn to Play program

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Ten years ago, Sidney Crosby went to the Penguins with a question.

He wanted to know if they could make it more affordable for kids to play hockey, and that he would like to help.

So Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse went to a few of their corporate sponsors - Dick's Sporting Goods and Reebok, which is now CCM - and together with Crosby, they all funded the Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey program to provide children in western Pennsylvania with free head-to-toe equipment.

Now in its ninth season, the Little Penguins Learn to Play program has become the standard for excellence in such initiatives.

"It's been very successful for us," Morehouse said. "It's doubled our fan base in the last 10 years in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is and always will be a football town, but now we can honestly say it's a hockey town, and I think it's largely through this program that we've been able to achieve that."

It has stretched throughout western Pennsylvania, even up to Erie, Pa. - where a kid named Connor McDavid played his junior hockey. The program's reach even stretched all the way across the country, where the Los Angeles Kings took notice of the Pens' initiative and implemented one of their own.

"For us, we kind of copied what Pittsburgh was doing, and we were kind of studying how much they were growing the game," said Kings president of business operations and Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille. "I think we're up to about 1,000 kids a year now."

And now, Pittsburgh's example has spread throughout the entire NHL.

On Saturday, the NHL and NHLPA announced their Learn to Play initiative, a new League-wide growth strategy enabling first-time participants to play the sport developed with the help of experts from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada.

Like the Little Penguins Learn to Play program, it will provide first-time participants between the ages of 4 and 8 free head-to toe equipment, age-appropriate instruction, and certified coaching led by NHL alumni in a fun and safe atmosphere.

They had a soft launch of the program last year, operating it in 10 markets. By that point, eight of the clubs - starting with the Pens and the Kings - had initiated their own Learn to Play programs from which, as NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daley said, the NHL "learned a lot and took a lot and kind of modeled the League-wide program after."

"This year I'm pleased and proud to say we'll have a Learn to Play program in all of our 30 markets," Daly said. "The Learn to Play program from our perspective is all about reducing cost barriers and casting a wider net for first-time hockey participants, introducing the sport to people who may not have had an opportunity absent this program."

Morehouse is thrilled to see the NHL move forward with this initiative.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "Kids are getting complacent, they're sitting on couches. If we can figure out ways to get them active, get them active in team sports where they have to learn how to win, how to lose, how to be a good teammate, I think it's a good thing to do. And, by the way, it's good business. It's not just a good thing to do, it's actually good for us as a business. We can't sustain this National Hockey League without growing the game, and without focusing on it."

Morehouse knows this from experience, as growing up in Pittsburgh, he remembers when Mario Lemieux first came to town. There were just six rinks in the region. When he retired, there were over 33 and now there's over 40.

But despite all of the talent the Pens had in those years - six of those players were just named as part of the NHL's 100 Greatest Players in a ceremony on Friday nighy - they never sold out an entire season with those players.

"We didn't start selling out until we started doing things like this," he said. "I think for the NHL to recognize that putting those four entities together - the NHLPA, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and also the teams - we can actually have a significant impact on growing the game. Also increasing the quality of the players coming up."

Which is evidenced by Vincent Trocheck's selection to represent the Florida Panthers this weekend, as he's the third Pittsburgh-born player chosen in the 2011 NHL Draft to play in an NHL All-Star Game - joining Brandon Saad and John Gibson, who represented the Columbus Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks, respectively, last year in Nashville.

But of course, it all starts with Crosby - and Morehouse hopes that moving forward, each team can have somebody like him leading the initiative forward.

"I think for us, we couldn't done it without him," Morehouse said. "I think now that it's established and we're going to take it to all 30 NHL cities, each NHL team has someone that can be that person. And, the alumni. I think it's important to have that connection: the NHL player, the ex-NHL player in order to get the kids excited about it. Once they're there, then you can teach them hockey and you can teach them life lessons."

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