With the 100th anniversary of Hockey Canada being marked this December, memories of children organizing their own games with their friends and neighbours on frozen rivers or lakes seem like a bygone idyllic dream.
For most kids playing hockey in the 21st century, the game has become a frenzied year-round business which is time-consuming and ultra-serious. With often a minimum of two practices and two games a week, family dinners during the winter become rare. Add to that weekend tournaments, power skating classes, three-on-three leagues in the spring, and skills development camps in the summer, and hockey has lost its allure of being a fun hobby.
As someone who has had her child in hockey for nine years, I’ve seen how parents can easily get swept up in the drive to have their children be the best they can be. For some families and kids, this is what they love. But for others, this is not the route they choose to go. They would love their kids to learn the game of hockey and to be able to play on a casual basis while leaving time for other sports, other activities, and friend and family time.
Is it possible for a child of this century to be a casual player anymore? Is it possible for a parent not to be on the road before sunrise consuming copious amounts of caffeine while shuttling their kids to arenas which sometimes feel like they’re in different time zones? Despite what some hockey school pamphlets might tell you, hockey can be played for fun in leagues and at your local arenas and backyard rinks. So lace up those skates, snap on that helmet, and get ready to learn Canada’s national game.
- The first priority in teaching children our national sport is to have them learn to skate. Skating can be learned through “Learn to Skate” programs which are offered through community centres and associations such as Skate Canada in every province and territory. Programs are offered from preschool age and up and kids can be on the ice with an instructor or with their parent and an instructor. A less structured way to teach kids to skate is for parents to take their kids to a local ice surface. While they may spend the first couple of times on the ice holding on to the boards or to your hands for dear life, it’s amazing how quickly kids pick up the skills of gliding, stopping, speeding up, and very importantly, falling down and getting back up. In order to keep it fun, focus on game-based instruction. Kids can play games such as Cops and Robbers, Simon Says, Follow the Leader, What Time is it Mr. Wolf?, and Ring Around the Rosie. Through these games, kids learn the skills of stopping and starting, the ability to fall and get up, and balance and agility.Always remember to have a proper fitting helmet and skates that fit properly. There’s nothing like sore feet to make a child unhappy and unwilling to be on the ice.
- Once kids have mastered the art of skating, sticks and other equipment can be introduced. There are many hockey skills programs across the country for kids as young as 3. Kids learn how to pass and receive a puck, puck control, shooting, and skating techniques such as crossovers and figure 8s. Many of these programs involve a specified amount of time learning skills and a certain amount of time scrimmaging. There are some programs, such as Little Kids Hockey offered through the University of Calgary, that have kids and their parents on the ice together.
- When I asked my 15 year old his earliest memories of learning to play hockey, he said he remembers learning the most playing shinny or drop-in hockey with his dad, his friend, and his friend’s dad at a neighbourhood arena. Local rinks often have shinny times which are specific to certain age groups. While watching bigger kids can be inspiring, being on the ice with them is a bad idea for small kids! Find the schedule for younger aged or parent-and-child shinny for your local rink and have fun playing the game in a non-competitive environment.
- Now that your child has learned to play, are there options for not committing one’s whole week to a team? There are leagues in which your child can play once a week such as Toronto’s Lawrence Park Athletic Association. There’s even a league called Hockey for Fun in Kitchener, Ontario in which players play the game once a week for exercise, to learn more about the game, and for the love of the game. In Outaouais, Quebec, Hockey4Fun emphasizes the same values and each child is given equal ice time. Search the internet using the key words, “once per week hockey” or “hockey fun” and leagues that play both indoors and outdoors can be found in your community. There are also leagues that have been dubbed “skiers leagues”, such as Toronto’s Mooredale Hockey, which have a game and a practice during the week or sometimes just one game so that families who like to get out and ski during the winter are sure to have their weekends free.
- Hockey camps during the March Break, December Break or summer are a great way to learn to play or continue to learn to play hockey. The Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames, and the Edmonton Oilers all offer camps for new and experienced players from ages 5 and up where kids can learn skills of the game AND meet players from the pro team! Community centres and other venues also offer great camps which cater to all levels of hockey. This is often a great way for kids to decide whether or not they want to play in an organized league or with friends and family on a more casual basis.
- Another great way to learn the skills of hockey is by playing ball hockey. Ball hockey takes out the skating element of ice hockey and allows kids to work on their stick handling and shooting. Play in a league, such as Regina’s Ball Hockey League which starts players off at the age of 5 or with your friends in a school yard.
- Is there anything more Canadian than a kid shouting, “CAR!” Get your neighbours and family members together for an impromptu game of street hockey (always with an adult to supervise, to keep the game safe). Older kids are a great source of information for little ones regarding rules and skills. And don’t forget the post-game hot chocolate!
- While this might not be the most active way to learn the game, watching hockey on TV as a family is a great bonding activity and kids pick up the rules of the game through watching and listening to the commentators. With the help of Bob Cole, Brian McFarlane, and Howie Meeker, my love of hockey grew from a very young age.
Whether your child decides to play in a league or on a more casual basis, hockey can be learned and enjoyed without the frenzy of it becoming a full-time occupation for both parents and kids. The bottom line should always be fun (and snacks afterwards are a good idea too!).