Every player was assigned a coach or volunteer to rotate them through each station every five to six minutes.
Record number of Try Hockey participants necessitated adding a second day in December
Since 1971, the Howard County (Maryland) Huskies have emphasized many of the components endorsed by USA Hockey and its American Development Model: cross-ice programs, sportsmanship, teamwork, and character-building. Their desire is to make sure every player has a chance to play at his or her skill level through recreational and Tier II travel teams.
The Huskies cover all of Howard County, which is located in Central Maryland. In its first year, the club had 45 players. This season, it now counts around 450, and just launched its first 12U girls team.
One of the biggest contributors to that growth in recent years is the success of the Washington Capitals, including their Stanley Cup championship last season. Through a partnership with the Capitals and USA Hockey, the Huskies have held Try Hockey for Free events for several years. Last year was their best turnout ever, with 65 participants. At this year’s event, held Nov. 10 at the Columbia Ice Rink, those numbers soared to over 100. So many kids signed up, the club had to close pre-registration several days before the event. They created a waiting list, and will hold a second THFF event Dec. 2, to ensure every child who signed up gets to participate.
“It was great, because we were actually able to get two events out of Try Hockey Day,” said Christy Dennis, a Huskies board member whose two sons play for the program. “It was the first time in our club’s history we’ve ever had to do that.”
Using materials provided by USA Hockey, the club initiated an aggressive marketing campaign. Board members and other volunteers gave presentations at area schools and youth sports clubs to promote hockey. It’s one thing to persuade kids to try the sport, but the next step is to get them hooked so they’ll keep coming back. Dennis estimates that 14 of the 45 players who registered for the Huskies’ learn-to-play program came from Try Hockey Day, with more expected from the second event. Mike Donnellan, a coach and the club’s director of player development, believes the culture of an organization like the Huskies is a critical factor in keeping kids interested in the sport.
“I really feel if you have 10 kids who go out there and try hockey for the first time, if it’s organized right, 9 out of those 10 are going to want to do it again,” said Donnellan, who grew up in Baltimore and played at the University of Massachusetts. “There’s just something about hockey. Kids love putting the equipment on, getting out on the ice.”
Donnellan speaks from experience. He played youth hockey in Baltimore, and first began coaching at the age of 22 after a thyroid condition forced him to leave college and stop playing. It took three years to recover, but he still believed he could play. The Nashville Predators gave him a chance, and he spent several years playing minor hockey before being invited to the team’s training camp. Numerous injuries finally forced him to stop playing, so he returned to Baltimore and joined the Huskies in 2017. His mission is to not only teach the game to kids, but make sure they understand the importance of maintaining proper nutrition, stretching, and other off-ice training to prevent injuries and other health problems.
“There are so many young kids coming up that I hope never have to go through what I did,” he explained.
When kids try hockey for the first time, it isn’t unusual for them to have some trepidation when they arrive at the rink or step on the ice. Anticipating this, the Huskies recruited a large number of older players and parents to help the younger kids into their gear, and stayed with each one throughout the sessions. Six stations were set up around the rink, with three 25-minute sessions. Every player was assigned a coach or volunteer to rotate them through each station every five to six minutes.
“I didn’t see any tears,” Donnellan said. “Every kid had a great time. It was very manageable because of the numbers and support we had.”
Along with teaching kids the importance of maintaining good health and proper on-ice training, Dennis says the goal of the club is to continue growing the membership and maintaining a positive culture. The club is also hosting a number of clinics to teach older players the finer points of the game, and younger kids different positions.
“We’re really focused on the educational component, whether it’s on-ice or off,” Dennis explained.