Any time a non-profit organization receives a donation or a grant it makes a difference. That’s particularly true for youth hockey associations in Minnesota which rely heavily on volunteers and the support of local businesses to keep costs low for participants.
Take Mankato Area Hockey Association (MAHA) for instance. MAHA has received starter youth hockey equipment through the Gear Up Minnesota! program for three consecutive years. Over that time, the association has used the equipment to grow their 8 & Under numbers by 24 players, or nearly 15%. In 2015-16, MAHA set a record for the most 8 & Under players they’ve had in the past 15 years, and they’ve already surpassed that mark this season.
“To be able to outfit players at a reasonable cost, it just helps get more kids involved, especially at the early ages,” said MAHA Vice President for Operations, Expansion and Growth, Rob Rader. “It goes a long way.”
While the equipment in and of itself would have made an impact regardless, the real difference has come from how MAHA has used the grants.
The Deciding Factor
One of MAHA’s primary recruiting events is a try hockey they host each fall, and the equipment they’ve received through Gear Up Minnesota! plays a key role.
The first step MAHA takes is emphasizing the availability of age-appropriate equipment in all promotional materials and advertising. While it may seem like a piece, knowing there is high quality equipment their child can use to try the game can be the deciding factor for parents who didn’t play hockey themselves. Plus, it ensures all players have a safer and better overall experience once they hit the ice.
“Players are equipped and sized before they go on the ice,” said Rader. “We want to make sure they’re in something safe and we’re pretty serious about the kids having a HECC (Hockey Equipment Certification Council) certified helmet. Gear Up Minnesota! really helps with that.”
Then, once kids have had a chance to feel for themselves the joy of playing hockey, MAHA utilizes the equipment as an incentive to transition the player into their association.
“If a player registers with USA Hockey and us that day, we fill out an equipment rental form for them without having to pay the fee,” said Rader.
When parents see their children’s smiling faces and learn that hockey isn’t as expensive as they expected, the incentive draws them into action and another family joins the Mankato hockey community.
“The big misnomer we’re trying to fight is that hockey is expensive,” said Rader. “Around here, with the equipment rentals we’re able to provide, kids can play hockey for less than travel baseball.”
A Community Effort
In addition to the equipment, MAHA also does its best to incorporate the broader Mankato community in their try hockey events. The local high school programs and Minnesota State University (MSU) teams are key supporters and participants.
This fall MAHA specifically scheduled its try hockey date so the MSU Women’s Hockey team would have to time to return from a road trip to the University of North Dakota. The Mavericks rewarded the association with 20 of 24 players and the university’s mascot, Stomper, attending the event and helping young players on the ice.
“It definitely helps when you get the support of a Division I team,” said Rader. “They’re asking, ‘What can we do, how can we help?’”
Rader hopes the impact of the Gear Up Minnesota! equipment, the growth of their program and the cohesiveness among all the hockey organizations in Mankato helps MAHA attain their goal of adding additional ice sheets in the community:
“We have a major ice shortage here in Mankato. The ability to outfit kids, get them in our program and show the community the growth in hockey and everything we do to make it accessible is a big part of our effort.”
Perhaps, the most exciting part is that once more ice becomes available MAHA might be ready to take their growth to an entirely new level.
“We haven’t run into a scenario where we couldn’t outfit a kid,” concluded Rader.