Set a Good Example...and Grow the Game
One of my memories growing up is when Walter Payton came to my school gymnasium to particpate with my first grade class in a "Jump for Heart" event back in 1982.
I don't remember all of the specifics -- we were jump roping to benefit the US Heart Association or something.
Double dutch was still a thing back then and they had some local teenagers really putting on a show with the chanting and fast feet...and then a couple of Chicago Bears sauntered in to jump rope with us.
Our Principal, Mrs. White, who I'd assumed was 90-something years old at the time announced their entry with a feedback compromised megaphone to get everyone's attention.
It was Walter Payton and, I beleive, Otis Wilson.
Both were in full uniform with those old school football thigh pads on and everything.
Payton even had Roos sneakers on just like nearly every first grader in the Greater Chicago area had back in 1982. Headband too!
When they came through the doors...wow. I'm not sure the megaphone introduction was even necessary.
I would never classify myself as a big football fan but, since that day, the Bears have been my team.
My man cave, today, even has a photo of Jim McMahon in it. And a William "Refridgerator" Parry GI Joe figure too?! They're so out of place, surrounded by hockey stuff, unless you know this story.
The only reason I remember this event, though, is because those two players were there in full uniform.
That 45 minute appearance left an impression.
I bring this up because, recently, my kids helped out at a "try skating/hockey for free" event.
To their chagrin, I forced them to take the ice in full game uniform...because of Walter Payton and Otis Wilson.
See, having been behind the scenes in hockey circles and seeing the players in the locker room, or on the bus, or at the grocery store, well, off the ice, they're just regular guys.
They really are.
Nothing overly or outwardly impressive.
I mean, take it right down to a squirt team -- when those kids are all buckled up and headed out on to the ice and their pump-up song is playing for warm-ups, they TRULY look like little NHL players.
And, then, after the game when they take the helmets off and you hear their high-pitched locker room banter, you come back to realize they're just elementary school kids talking about Baby Shark, Pokemon, and Fortnite.
Had Payton and Wilson come into that gym wearing street clothes or even Bears team warm-ups...there's no way I'd remember who came to jump rope with us 40+ years later.
The uniform does something.
It transforms your image.
Makes you larger than life.
The kids that "skated" with my sons the other night probably felt like that were skating with "real" hockey players.
That's a big deal.
Here's to hoping it left enough of an impression that they'll get back on the ice, you know, five or six days per week for the next decade!
And, afterwards, when still slightly embarassed to have been in full gear, I explained to them how giddy they were in the past when U18 or U16 players would partricpate in their mite or squirt team practices.
And reminded them of that one time they had a group lesson and Nick Bonino was the fourth guy in the group...and he wiped out on one of the transitions!
And just last week, a couple of NCDC PAL Jr. Islanders were on the ice taking reps with them in their practice jerseys.
The light bulb went on.
Going out in sweatpants and a hoodie, like they wanted to, would have been the wrong decision.
Random thoughts...that are barely connected...
Speaking of Learn to Play events, am I alone in thinking that it's a shame that hockey rinks are by-and-large very intimidating environments for people new to the game?
I don't partake in it...but I'm certainly aware of all of the "why are you here?" looks players and parents give folks as they walk in.
I just switched programs with a couple of my kids -- you bet we got the "Who are you and why are you here?" stares on the first couple nights.
Figure skating families and their side-eyes, oh man, don't even get me started.
My oldest son, a typical teenager, is 100% guilty of it himself and I nearly smack the "I'm cool" expression off his face everytime I witness it.
I mean, at first glance, it all feels very judgy.
It's not, though. I mean, it is...but it's not a difficult group to break in to either -- by your third time to the rink, you'll know when to get there, where to go, and where the sane parents congregate.
I suppose it's a lot like the gym. If you're in, you're in. If you're not...get out.
And that's too bad.
My favorite moment at this "Try Skating/Hockey for Free" event was a little girl trailing her clearly "out of her comfort zone" mom excitedly exclaim, "Wow, it's really cold in here!" as then entered the arena.
Little girl was buzzin!
Mom looked afraid -- where do I go, what do I do, it said it started at 6, why are there kids on the ice already, and why did I sign up for this?
That's not fun.
I'm the biggest hockey snob around...but I'm also a huge proponent of adding players and skaters. You need to make them feel welcome...even if they can't skate at all.
I've tried to push that agenda on my kids and, for one of them especially, I think it's worked.
I've been approached many times by parents thanking me for having a kid that was so nice and welcoming to guest players or real little guys at public skates.
It's funny to me too cause he's the hot tempered one with all of the penalty minutes...
Some people don't want help -- I encountered a few of those the other night and that's fine, they'll figure it out or just be done with it -- but the vast majority are just afraid to ask anyone for help.
So many seemingly unfriendly people milling about.
As such, I try to come across as approachable. Never grumpy, or laser focussed on the game/practice, or in closed circle of flat-brimmed hat wearing dads loudly talking about the league standings at the U10 level.
I might be a minority in that respect...but I'm not alone. There are seasoned hockey parents 100% willing to offer advice in the building at any given time.
Experience has only taught me maybe 25% of what I know...the other 75% came from asking parents with older children.
If you're new to the hockey or figure skating world -- reach out to someone with older children in the sport.
Or, if you just walked in the front door -- ask the first player or parent not acting like a middle schooler concerned about which lunch table they'll be sitting at. They'll put you on the right path.
My first tip for prospective hockey parents -- put on the pants BEFORE the skates. And, yes, I strongly suggest elbow pads. Always.
In fact, if you've got it, put them in full hockey equipment even if the other kids in the class are only wearing mittens and bike helmets.
Most of the parents reading this are at the level where their kids have been "legit" skating since they were four years old. The kids don't even remember the beginning or that it's hard so, instead, they just poke fun at the people that struggle at the onset.
Newsflash -- everyone sucks at skating at the start.
Remind your kids of that everytime they're on the glass with their team endlessly criticizing a younger team's game or practice.
You've seen it. You've heard it.
It's just part of the crappy intimidating environment.
The best moments in youth hockey are when a bantam or midget team are all on the glass CHEERING for a mite team and fist bumping them all as they head off to the locker room, post-game.
It's too bad that doesn't happen more often.
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