Hockey has been woven into Minnesota’s Iron Range for generations, and the Virginia Amateur Hockey Association’s commitment to keeping costs low is paying dividends for the future generation of the sport.
For first year skaters in particular, the Virginia Amateur Hockey Association provides rental equipment at no charge, in hopes of inspiring young players to take the first step.
“I think the biggest thing we do is, and we’re very proud of it, is the fact that our cost is very inexpensive and we make a commitment particularly for the first year players, whether they’re 5 years old or maybe they’re trying it for the first time at 8 years old,” said Virginia Amateur Hockey Association President Dan Rabideaux.
Additional rental equipment bags in excess of first-year kids, frequent gear exchanges among families, equipment donations—all fueling the association’s success over the past few years.
In Rabideaux’s four years serving as the association’s president, he has witnessed a jump in participation from fewer than 150 kids back in 2014, to just over 200 this season.
“I think our big success is the fact that we keep the costs low to at least try it,” Rabideaux said. “The investment for families is pretty insignificant. It’s time, really, to give their kids exposure to it. … We’re trying as much as we can to keep it economical, because we really have seen our growth and our retention as a result of making hockey affordable.”
Attracting skaters from near and far
Thanks to a second ice sheet that’s outside, but covered and protected from the elements, the Virginia Amateur Hockey Association is able to provide 15 to 30 hours each week dedicated toward open, unstructured hockey.
“Ice time is not a problem, which is a huge benefit to the participants as they have virtually as much ice time as they want,” Rabideaux said. “Being in northern Minnesota, it’s very challenging with what the weather can present. To have that ice available to our program kids is fantastic.”
When players aren’t practicing their slap shots or stickhandling, they’re preparing for one of two tournaments Virginia holds each year.
The biggest event of the year—what originally began as a Mini-Mite and Mite Jamboree of 12 to 18 teams—was rebranded several years ago as the Matt Niskanen Mite/Mini-Mite Jamboree.
A 2018 Stanley Cup champion and former Virginia Blue Devil himself, Niskanen donates time, money and memorabilia toward the event, which now attracts up to 32 teams from around northern Minnesota.
“By the time teams are leaving, they’re trying to register for next year’s event to make sure they’re able to come back,” Rabideaux said. “The demand to participate is absolutely incredible.”
Virginia also hosts the Erik Marwick Squirt Tournament, named in honor of the loss of one of the associations hockey players several years ago, that features a traditional 16-team bracket tournament.
In addition to a handful of Iron Range teams, nearly half the teams come from out of the area, including the Twin Cities. Rabideaux says there’s still a great desire to play a 16-team bracket tournament, which has been a huge success over the years.
A driving force of volunteers
At the heart of each tournament and throughout the season, dedicated volunteers donate precious time to ensure everything runs smoothly.
From its Board of Directors to coaches and families, the Virginia Amateur Hockey Association is comprised of 100 percent volunteers.
“If there was one thing I would highlight in terms of our program’s success, it’s the level of commitment from our volunteers,” Rabideaux said. “It’s unreal. The level of commitment from them and the way they treat our guests is incredible. It’s all being driven by volunteers.”
Those volunteers put in countless hours toward a program and community that’s proud to do its part in motivating the next generation of hockey players—whether it’s through ample ice time or providing a low cost way to jump into the sport.
“Having that and promoting that the way we do, I think is what attracts kids,” Rabideaux said. “Since I’ve been the president over the last four years, I’ve seen the growth in the program, as well as the desire to be an active participant through volunteering. It’s very special.”