What would make a five year old boy or girl really happy and excited?
It’s a question that gets asked millions of times this time of year as parents and grandparents head to stores in search of the perfect holiday gift. While the actual item may vary significantly, the simple answer is fun.
The ironic part is that when it comes to hockey, fun is usually the easy part.
“Once we get the kids on the ice, they love hockey,” said Austyn Kryzer, who handles the recruitment and retention efforts for the Inver Grove Heights Hockey Association (IGHHA).
So the question becomes, what would make the parents of a five year old excited to get him or her involved in hockey?
For IGHHA, the solution has been to focus on eliminating the barriers to trying hockey and emphasizing a love for the game at the beginner levels. It’s a concept that sounds simple but requires a long term focus, communication, cooperation, the utilization of external resources and a lot of hard work.
Last year, IGHHA had 61 new 8 & Under players join their program, more than double the number of new players they had in 2010-11 and the most they’ve had in the past 15 years. The positive trend has continued so far this season, and much of that success Kryzer attributes to being able to market the availability of free hockey, including equipment, in their community.
“We offer a free first year of hockey and free equipment,” said Kryzer. “Right away, people say, ‘Oh, hockey is expensive.’ Being able to make that equipment available free of charge is a big part of growing our association. Many of our kids likely wouldn’t try it otherwise. It creates an opportunity for our kids.”
In order to supply all of the kids with equipment, IGHHA turned to Minnesota Hockey’s equipment grant program, Gear Up Minnesota. The Gear Up Minnesota program began in 2010 with the support of Total Hockey and the Minnesota Wild Foundation and has donated over 1,800 sets of starter hockey equipment to 101 unique associations in just four years.
IGHHA is a three-time recipient of the grant and received 26 sets this summer, including a set of starter goalie gear. The benefits of the grants have even extended far beyond simply providing kids with equipment, as it has boosted awareness of hockey in the community and enabled them to update their inventory with higher quality and more adequately sized equipment.
“We’re able now to outfit our kids in age appropriate equipment which I think contributes to them having a better experience,” said Kryzer, who is also the boys head hockey coach for Simley High School.
Kryzer, IGGHA and the Simley High School programs have also devoted significant time and resources to making sure the kids and parents are aware of all the great opportunities they have to try hockey. The start their marketing efforts during the summer when soccer and baseball teams are still playing and continue into the fall, with the goal of reaching peak awareness after school starts.
“This year we had our high school players go and read Brady Brady books to the kindergarten and first grade classes, prior to the Try Hockey For Free day in November,” said Kryzer. “We then handed each student a Brady Brady coloring page with Try Hockey information on the back.”
The Brady Brady books, which offer hockey themed stories, combined with listening to their high school idols had a strong impact on the kids and helped IGHHA garner the third most participants of any event in the state on USA Hockey’s national Try Hockey For Free day on November 8th.
With that type of turnout and the equipment as a built-in retention tool, IGHHA could have another huge season of growth in 2014-15.
“Minnesota Hockey has really stepped up for us the last few years, and we’ve put in the effort to get the kids in the door,” said Kryzer. “The money, grants and equipment we’ve received - our association is going to be a reflection of that effort. I’m excited about the future of Simley hockey.”