Their hockey jerseys stretch nearly to the ice. And some resemble penguins as they waddle on their skates. But there could be future Wayne Gretzkys or Hillary Knights in the bunch. And they’ll never know until they try.
That’s the premise behind The National Hockey League(NHL)/National Hockey League Players’ Association(NHLPA) First Shift hockey program, for children ages four through 11. The program is designed to break down the barriers to playing hockey for youngsters who would like to try the sport, without incurring the expenses that normally come with such an endeavor.
For $250, they get black helmets, white jerseys, black pants, shin guards, elbow guards, skates, sticks, gloves, and socks—equipment that otherwise could cost as much as $500. They also get six one-hour-long coaching sessions at Hailey Ice, something that could cost several hundred dollars or more.
“It can be expensive to get into hockey, so this allows parents to get the gear and a little bit of ice time for their kids, without having to spend a lot of money. Then, if the kids like it, they can move on to Sun Valley Youth Hockey,” said Chris Corwin, who coaches his nine-year-old twins on the 10-and-under Sun Valley Youth Hockey team.
Corwin learned of the NHL/NHLPA First Shift program and talked the Canadian program into launching a pilot program in partnership with Sun Valley Youth Hockey in 2019. It is one of just four such programs in the United States.
“I grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, where I played hockey on outdoor ponds using gear friends had outgrown. But my family wasn’t wealthy, so I didn’t get a chance to play organized hockey until sixth grade, and by then, I was behind the curve,” said Corwin, who went on to play in college recreation league and on B-League teams.
Representatives of Hockey Canada and Bauer hockey gear founded First Shift in 2013 after learning that nine out of 10 children in the hockey bastion of Canada did not play hockey. The NHL and NHLPA began collaborating with the program in 2018. To date, nearly 25,000 Canadian boys and girls have participated in the program.
Thirty-two Wood River Valley youngsters took part in 2019. After the program was shelved in 2020 because of the pandemic, 40 kids signed up this year, and eight had to be turned away.
Kids learn how to skate by playing Red Light Green Light, as they slide on the ice and crash into the boards. They weave around cones set up on the ice, step over hockey sticks and squat as they sail under bars. They learn how to handle a puck, pass it and shoot it. Excited parents take video from the stands, putting numbers and names on their children’s jerseys so they can figure out which kids are theirs.
“It’s pretty much organized chaos,” said Corwin. “In the beginning, there’s a big blob of kids dancing around the puck. But near the end, we have mini scrimmages of three-on-three and five-on-five on half ice. And it’s amazing to see how much they’ve improved.”
John Kearney’s 8-year-old son, Griffyn, took part in the inaugural First Shift program. His 6-year-old daughter, Morghan, is participating this year.
“This is a great way for children to try a sport that’s not cheap,” said Kearney, director of recreation for the City of Ketchum. “It’s nice to expose kids to different activities at a young age, and hockey is a game where kids learn a lot of life skills, like integrity and honesty.”
Erin Kosach’s 8-year-old daughter, McKinley, participated in the program in 2019; her 6-year-old daughter, Olympia, asked to try it this year.
“We weren’t sure how Olympia would take to the ice, as she’s our girly girl,” said Kosach. “But she’s loving it and doing really well. The kids have so much fun and pick it up so easily, and they stay engaged, moving the entire time. They’ve inspired me to play in the women’s league this year!”
Ten of the 2019 First Shift participants have gone on to play Sun Valley Youth Hockey, which is fielding 300 players this year, 30 more than last year.
“We hope the First Shift kids fall in love with the game,” said Corwin. “Even if they don’t go on [to play], they learn things like coordination that can help them in other sports.”