We watch ice hockey because, as an advertising campaign once told us, it is the coolest game on Earth. Players dazzle us with extraordinary athletic feats, all performed as they balance on slivers of steel flying across a sheet of ice. We admire 100 MPH slap shots and smooth saucer passes. Bone-rattling hits and flexibility-defying saves. Deft poke checks and stinging haymakers. We watch because we love every detail of the game.
You know what can be even more exciting and fun than watching hockey? Lacing up skates to play the game. To those of us that play, or have played, the game is a gift. From the lowest level of recreation league play to the highest level of professional play, there are moments and details forever seared in our memory, practically encoded in our DNA. The smell of the rink. The distinct crunching sound of skates carving ice. Mucking and grinding along the boards. Knowing instinctively where a teammate is on the ice, then putting the puck on his or her stick. Perfectly reading the play to break up a pass. Sliding post to post, stacking the pads to thwart a sure goal. The brief moment of calm leaning in for the faceoff. “That” feeling of hopping over the boards to join the play. And, of course, the shared locker room laughter and camaraderie, the joy of winning and pain of losing together.
For many, hockey is a ritual. A time to step away from the real world, escaping, for an hour or two, from all that troubles us. A chance to fly up the ice, to embrace the rugged physicality of the sport. Hockey, with its long stretches of uninterrupted flow of play, forces players to live in the moment. Perhaps with lungs searing and legs pumping, but nonetheless, a kind of mindfulness allowing to be lost in the present. Hockey is indeed a gift. A gift that should be shared with anyone who wants the opportunity to play.
As amazing as ice hockey is, there is one thing it isn’t: inexpensive. The steep costs of equipment and ice time can be stumbling blocks for those who would like to try the game. Outfitting a player just so they can experiment with playing can be cost prohibitive. Kids, the key to growing the game, may miss opportunities. It would be a shame to never experience the joy of the game, or to miss valuable instruction and practice time because a child could not afford to try the game at a formative age. Those of us who didn’t start playing until college or later were at a distinct disadvantage. Pre-internet, without proper coaching, we were left to learn techniques from books, watching the pros, or viewing the odd instructional video we popped in the VCR. Playing earlier would have provided invaluable instruction, coaching, practice, and experience.
Thankfully, USA Hockey has a solution with its Try Hockey for Free Day. As part of Hockey Weekend Across America, on Saturday, February 23, ice rinks across the United States will offer children ages 4 to 9 the opportunity to try hockey at no charge. Participating host locations will provide at least 40 sets of helmets, skates, jerseys, and gloves, with perhaps more equipment available. The one-day clinic, a joint venture between USA Hockey, the National Hockey League and NHL member clubs, will introduce the game to kids without the investment of paying for equipment or playing fees. Volunteers will be available to help players suit up, to teach, and to have fun. Parents will then have the chance to enroll their budding players in the local rink’s hockey program. Eight rinks in the Washington, D.C. area are participating.
The list of facilities and their clinic times can be found here.
There is no doubt the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup brought new fans to the game. If any of the young fans, ages 4 to 9, want to engage in the game even further, Saturday February 23, 2019 may be the opportunity to begin forging their own hockey memories.
By Bryan Hailey