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New Players Falling in Love with Hockey

By Ontario Minor Hockey Association, 12/03/19, 3:30PM EST

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First Shift program inspires new families to try hockey by breaking down barriers

Thousands of children across Ontario had the chance to fall in love with hockey this season thanks to the First Shift program.

The First Shift mission is to change the way hockey is offered, to inspire new families to join our community, and enroll their kids in our sport. Because of the program’s belief in all that hockey has to offer kids, their families and our communities, First Shift was designed to break down barriers to entry by making hockey accessible, affordable, and most importantly, fun!

With an emphasis on fun, the First Shift allows participants to easily try hockey for $199, which includes enrollment for a six-week, on-ice curriculum and head-to-toe Bauer Hockey equipment that each child can keep.

Playing hockey allows kids to learn teamwork and leadership skills, inspire hard work and dedication and the experience of being involved in a community. The core values and lessons taught help to develop good citizens and healthy athletes.

The First Shift covers a vast area of routines, games and activities that will be beneficial to the participant’s enjoyment of the program and experience as a hockey player. All drills are run in small groups and focus on a variety of skills throughout each session.

We spoke with three Associations that hosted First Shift programs during the Fall session.

Why did your association want to get involved with this program?

Brampton: Over the last 15 years we have seen our registration numbers drop. This has been for a variety of reasons but we as an organization wanted to see what we could do to try to increase that number instead.

Tavistock: We hoped the First Shift Program would make the game more accessible to families in our area. We wanted to break down the barriers that prevented kids or their parents from trying the game. We were confident that if given the chance to try hockey, many would enjoy it, and continue to play, increasing the number of players in our organization.

Belleville: The lead instructor reached out to our association, wanting to start something very similar to First Shift for the kids not 100% ready to commit or too nervous to try. Our association found the First Shift program a couples years ago and applied. The lead instructor has ran every one we have ever offered through Belleville Minor Hockey.

Did any of the participants have any experience in skating or hockey?

Brampton: The participants have typically had some type of skating, maybe through the city programs or just getting out to the public skates but there are always a few that have never been on skates before. I don’t believe that any have had ice hockey experience but may have played some type of floor hockey or ball hockey.

Tavistock: Some had skating experience, but because of Hockey Canada registration requirements, none, or very few, had previous hockey experience.

Belleville: The lead instructor has been a Belleville Minor Hockey house league coach since he started hockey. He also worked part time as an assistant power skating instructor with the city of Belleville. The other instructors he’s used have been hockey parents for older children, referees and present hockey coaches in our association.

Can you describe what a typical on-ice session looked like?

Brampton: All participants and instructors are included in the warm up exercises of stretching and full ice skating drills for about 6-8 minutes. The players are then broken into groups and rotated through different stations doing drills, mainly basic skating edge and cross overs, front and backwards skating, passing drills, wrist shots, balance control, We always incorporate a game type of something (frozen tag) team relay races. etc.

Tavistock: We split our players into three groups. One group at center ice and one from each blue line to the end boards. A coach leader ran pre-set drills for each group. Each coach has at least four to five helpers. Our First Shift on-ice coordinator determines the drills to be run for the day. All groups run the same drills but in different order to allow everyone access to supplies as needed. Drills focus on developing basic hockey skills in a fun manner. Drills are kept short, and intermingled with games to keep the kids focused, moving and ensuring everyone has fun!

Belleville: We had half the ice set up for skating and the other half was for skills and drills.

What was the response from the players, parents and volunteers? Has there been any retention?

Brampton: Some parents want more game play but we are mixing some game type drills into the practice sessions. We do see more and more First Shift bags entering into the arenas each year so the program seems to be working. Last season we had 16 players from the First Shift program sign up to play Minor Peewee and Peewee Rec League hockey as well as many others at the Novice and Atom ages.

Tavistock: Since players can only participate in the First Shift program once, Tavistock Minor Hockey developed a Second Shift Program to allow players to continue playing the game after First Shift if they were not ready for a full minor hockey program. This program is split between skills development and pond hockey. It has been a big factor in keeping many families in the game after completing the First Shift. It has also increased the retention rate of First Shift players because players gained more confidence and developed their skills in Second Shift before moving into a more traditional minor hockey program.

What is the future for the program and the players involved?

Brampton: From the Fall programs we offer a continuation program that will take us out until the end of March when our season is officially over. All participants are encouraged to register in the Rec League program that following year and we do offer additional assistance for those that would require some extra help on the ice.

Tavistock: Tavistock Minor Hockey plans to continue offering the First and Second Shift programs as long as Hockey Canada continues with the First Shift. The Second Shift program has grown every year and currently has 40 players registered. Additional growth will require some changes to the program to ensure players are getting as much ice time as possible. This is a great problem to have and we will come up with creative solutions as necessary.

Belleville: Our association may offer another six ice sessions after the Christmas break.


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Why is it important for associations to host programs that bring new players into the game?

Brampton: Hockey can be expensive but this program makes the first steps very affordable without a huge commitment from the financial side of things. We have to look at trying different ways to generate the interest in the game. Years ago when you were 4-6 years old you automatically were registered for hockey in the winter. Nowadays it seems like the average age for players to get involved are in the 8-10 range after they have developed some type of skating. Many of these athletes enjoy playing hockey, it is just a skating thing and costs that are holding them back.

Tavistock: Small centres need to be creative to attract new players to the game. Traditional minor hockey programs need to adapt to address the issues of today's families that may not have the flexibility to commit the time required for a full minor hockey program with travel to other centers, and several ice times per week.

Do you have any stories of participants from a few years ago who are now full participants in your association?

Brampton: We have been running First Shift Programs for just over five years now and many of the players are playing in our Recreational programs at various ages. We have had many attend tryouts in the past and probably have 10 or so that are playing some type of Rep Hockey now here in Brampton.

Tavistock: We have many former Frist Shift Players involved in our organization.

Belleville: The lead instructor has seen a few of his First Shifters skating in house league hockey and he loves watching their improvement.

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