By Jon Frank, News Record sports writer
It’s Thursday evening at the Spirit Hall Ice Arena and the rink is congested with pint-sized skaters flopping hockey sticks around and occasionally losing their balance and taking a tumble.
It’s the final night of the Blades and Avalanche Learn to Play program. If you can believe it, things were even more chaotic in September when the kids, who ranged in age from 5 to 8, first took to the ice.
To the outside eye, it’s nothing more than a group of rugrats in hockey pads. But to Tom Winkler, it’s the future of hockey.
“You realize in building the sport, you want to get the kids excited,” said Winkler, the coach of the Gillette Wild junior tier III hockey team. “You want to get them going early.”
Winkler feels strongly about introducing youth to hockey. That’s why he insists his team offer its services several nights each week in both the Learn to Skate and Learn to Play programs.
There was early skepticism among some players, but the payoff in community service quickly became visible.
“At first it was kind of, ‘Oh, great, we don’t have any free time,’” Gillette defender Bobby Solari of Bowie, Md., said. “But if you put effort into it, you get something out of it.”
Now Solari has a small group of kids who follow him around, watching his every move. They wear Solari Wild jerseys. They want to be like him.
Solari can relate to that. As a kid growing up with older siblings, Solari was just like them when he was young.
“Seeing a kid wear your number and say it’s because of you, it’s one of the more rewarding things,” he said.
The Learn to Skate and Learn to Play programs in Gillette have been around for years. But having the entire Gillette Wild squad giving their time in their first season beefed up the number of youngsters who wanted to play in a hurry.
In years past, numbers of young skaters hovered around 40. This year, the classes have filled up. There’s one group of 40 and one group of 29 in the Learn to Play program alone.
The program is running at a higher level than ever before, said Stephanie Stuber, the Campbell County Recreation Center’s intramural program supervisor. Having the Gillette Wild around makes the young kids more interested in learning the skills, she said.
“They’re so good with the kids,” she said. “They play with them, they spin with them on the ice. They teach them with a smile. I can’t even say enough about them, they’re so good.”
Parents who have kids in the program are happy to have the junior team around, as well. The kids admire the hockey players.
Karen Cunningham, who has two children in the program, said that her son follows the example of Taylor Cavan.
“You’d think they’d get burned out on all those kids,” Cunningham said. “I really admire what they’ve done.”
For Grant Friesen of Alberta, Canada, this is nothing new. The goalie has been working with kids since he was 14.
Back in Canada, it’s his part-time job.
He’s used to seeing the progression in the kids — from barely being able to stand in skates to having a good grasp of the fundamentals
Six years of experience and Friesen is a natural.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s been challenging days when the kids won’t listen, but that’s to be expected at this age.”
In the waning seconds of the last Learn to Play session of the season on Thursday, the kids banged their sticks against the wall as the timer clicked down to zero. They skated off, flailing their sticks in the air.
The horseplay carried on as the kids ran around and their parents tried to corral them long enough to remove their equipment.
Members of the Gillette Wild then began to clean everything up.