On an unusually warm fall day in Duluth, the temperature inside the Northland’s flagship youth hockey venue, Duluth’s Heritage Arena, was reminiscent of the coming winter—and the coming hockey season.
And while the Minnesota Wild prepared for the upcoming NHL season, dozens of Duluth-Superior area kids skated in their final session of the Little Wild program, preparing themselves for a special hockey season: their first.
Teaming up with Minnesota Hockey, Total Hockey and CCM, the Minnesota Wild put on the Little Wild program in eight cities throughout the state, including Duluth. The program’s purpose is to give children who have not played organized hockey before the opportunity to do so; providing them with equipment and a chance to hone their skills during four skating sessions— all while keeping the startup cost low.
New skaters came from all over the area to participate in the program, and though the Wild players may have a bit more experience on the ice, the participants were able to look like their heroes in Saint Paul, with Wild logos on all of their new gear.
For a registration fee of $100, participants ages five to eight not only received ice time but also a full CCM gear setup, which in addition to all protective gear, included a stick and skates. Topping it off, participants wore jerseys with the classic Wild circle logo, inspiring a future generation of hockey players—and Wild fans.
“Ashton was really excited; anything affiliated with the Wild is exciting [for him]. He was so proud of all of his gear, literally everyone that comes to our house, he wants to show them his gear,” said Carrie Heffernan, of Duluth, whose six-year-old son is enrolled in the program.
Though the main focus of the Little Wild program is to grow youth hockey in Minnesota, a focal point of the program is also to keep the costs down.
By providing ice time, coaching, and the necessary gear for $100, the program succeeds in minimizing the startup cost, an issue that overshadows youth hockey and the future of the sport. In a sport that can cost upwards of a thousand dollars annually, keeping the price to play low is crucial for growing the game.
“I think sometimes the barrier to playing hockey is the equipment is kind of expensive so it’s really nice that they’re offering this program,” said Heffernan.
“If you can get them in their first year without any fees like that, I think the Duluth and Superior programs are getting a lot better; and I think the turnout is pretty good too,” said Kyle Thimm, of Superior.
Thimm’s six-year-old niece, Kenlyn, will play in the Superior youth hockey association this coming season.
The turnout was exceptional not only for Duluth’s location, but for each of the eight locations. In all, 480 players participated in the program.
The aspiring hockey players in the Duluth branch of the Little Wild program were treated to a pleasant surprise when several players from the UMD men’s collegiate team took time off from preparing for their own season to help coach each of the four weekly September instructional sessions.
“I think this Little Wild program is awesome; its great for kids that haven’t played before,” said Thimm. “They have UMD Bulldog players helping out and it’s nice to have them doing that for the community. I don’t know of any other programs that do this,”
The Bulldog players, along with Nick Jones, Hermantown’s Bantam A coach, led the young skaters in drills aimed at both developing skills, while also keeping it fun.
“A lot of the drills we went off of the USA Hockey ADM (American Development Model),” said Jones. “It’s a lot of small area games, a lot of puck touches, pretty much everyone getting involved.”
“The tough part is just making sure they’re doing everything right, and they’re holding their stick right,” said Jared Thomas, a freshman forward for UMD. “But as long as they’re getting something out of it, and having fun, that’s all that matters.”
Thomas grew up in nearby Hermantown and reveled in the opportunity to teach the new skaters through the Little Wild program.
“I like this kind of stuff. The kids make us laugh, and make us remember back to that age; it was a good time for all of us,” said Thomas.
The four weekly skating sessions followed the USA Hockey ADM, laying the foundation for the Little Wild participants to be successful in joining the ranks of the 54,507 Minnesota youth hockey players registered in 2013-2014. But if you asked the players, they were more interested in the fun they were having than any models or developing.
“[At] the end right here we played grown ups against kids,” said Keenan Smith, 6, describing his favorite part of the clinic.
When asked if the kids won, Keenan nodded enthusiastically.
At the conclusion of the final skating session, something that the parents, players, and coaches could all agree upon was that all of the skaters improved.
“That first [clinic], she was falling down every so often, and last week even, but it’s getting less and less each week,” said Thimm, as he watched his niece glide around the ice.
“The first day the cones were getting pushed around,” said Jones. “[There was] definitely a lot of improvement in those four weeks, but we saw a lot of smiles and a lot of kids had a lot of fun- and that’s where it starts.”
“I learned how to hockey stop,” Ashton Heffernan stated proudly; he will play for the Glen Avon Hockey Association in Duluth this season.
Walking out to the hot September air, the new hockey players left Heritage Arena with newly acquired skills, and a newfound passion for the game: while their parents hauled their new equipment to the car—some for the first time—but none for the last.