“Try Hockey For Free” clinics grow the game during Hockey Day



By Michael Caples - 

On Feb. 16, Ara Kabodian took his three children to a “Try Hockey For Free” skate at the Plymouth Cultural Center.

After talking to his oldest son, 9-year-old Andrew, through the glass while he was slipping and sliding through his first skating experience, Ara said he was taking advantage of the opportunity for his kids to finally try the sport they had been asking about.

“It exposes them to a new sport,” the potential hockey parent said. “We had never tried hockey before, and I think they’ve always watched hockey on TV, and liked it, but never had a chance to try it, so this is a good first try for them, give them some exposure to the sport. We’ll see where it goes from here, but they seem to be enjoying it, even though Andrew is falling a bit.”

They might not have known it, but the Kabodians were the poster family for Hockey Day in Michigan and the numerous “Try Hockey” skates hosted around the state. In an effort to grow the sport – to share the sport – 23 rinks across Michigan held the free one-day clinics for children wishing to try hockey.

At the Plymouth Cultural Center, 61 children officially tried hockey for the first time during the free clinic from 4 to 5 p.m. One of them just happened to be the daughter of Salem High School hockey coach Ryan Ossenmacher, who took to the ice only to skate with all the players her dad coaches. The Salem Rocks varsity team joined the event organizers to offer assistance for the aspiring hockey players.

“She’s been around the rink obviously, but I’ve never really pushed her to do it,” Ossenmacher said from the bench he coaches from, yet now viewing the ice as a parent. “She’s going to be four in June, and just recently she really started to ask about playing hockey, going on the ice, so this is an opportunity. Our players obviously came out here, and I was coming out here anyways, so I contacted them and said, ‘Hey, can I bring her out?’ and they said sure.

“Somebody else asked me; it’s a totally different perspective. I’m not thinking hockey, I’m just watching her and thinking about how awesome it is that she’s out there and having a good time and she’s got equipment on and I’m taking pictures and sending them to my wife. Sometimes you lose sight of what hockey is when you get in the heat of a game or a season when things don’t always go your way, but when you see this, as the root of it, it really brings back why we do it and what this game is really about, and that’s really just how good it is.”

Ossenmacher’s captain, Salem senior defenseman Kyle Downey, said it was a great experience to share the ice with the youngsters.

“Just kind of giving back to the hockey community – hockey’s been such a big part of everybody’s life that’s on our team,” Downey said. “Everybody’s probably been playing for at least 10 years. I’ve been playing for 14 myself, so it’s just great to give back to the community, help the sport grow within Michigan.

“It brings back memories, you know? Definitely, falling down, I remember every time I fell down when I was a little kid, just about. It’s just fun.”

For Ron Hayes, there have been plenty of memories of watching kids fall down only to get back up. The Michigan Skills Development Director for MAHA has been working with the Detroit Red Wings Foundation in a collaborative effort to bring “Try Hockey For Free” clinics to kids across the state of Michigan.

“The program’s been pretty good,” Hayes said. “We’ve been all over the state, to Alpena to Grand Rapids, we’ve spent a lot of time in the west coast, Adrian’s been a bright spot. We’ve had a lot of bright spots with a lot of good turnouts, and I think anything over 35 is a good turnout. …It’s been a challenge and I think as it progresses year to year, it’s going to get better.”

There’s more to the “Try Hockey For Free” clinics than just free equipment and free ice time, however. Hayes said there’s a structured approach to the clinic, based around quickly introducing the children to basic skills, yet making sure they have fun at the same time.

“The non-skaters, all we do is one-on-one with the high school kids or whoever,” Hayes said. “Anybody that can get around, we take them through basic skills, just agility and balance if you will, cross-ice, and that’s for about 20 minutes. Then for 20 minutes we show them how to hold a hockey stick, how to shoot the puck, how to catch a pass, those types of things. And then for the last 20 minutes, we play pond hockey. Because whether we like it or not, the kids are here to put the puck in the net, and they don’t care about drills, they want to play. It’s proved to be successful and they have a ball.”

Plymouth wasn’t the only rink to host a “Try Hockey For Free” skate, either. Just a few hours earlier, Suburban Ice Farmington Hills hosted a free clinic of their own for another group of aspiring players. Rink GM Geoff Bennetts, a Wixom native and Ferris State hockey alum, said he enjoyed taking the ice to teach the kids the basics of the game.

“I thought the clinic was great,” Bennetts said. “We had lots of new hockey players out on the ice trying it for the first time. They come on the ice a little unsure and didn’t know what to expect but by the end of the session they’re smiling, they all got to score some goals – it was a success.”

As Bennetts pointed out, many young players have family connections to the sport. A “Try Hockey For Free” event is a unique way to spread the game to those who may not be too familiar with hockey.

“Absolutely, there’s no question that giving the kids the opportunity to try the game for free in this type of clinic. A lot of these players have not had hockey in their families, so this is something brand new to them. Most kids, if they’ve started the game already, they have some hockey in their family background somewhere, but most of these kids have never tried it before.

“Some have started with learn-to-skate programs, but for the most part these kids are new to the game. It’s a great opportunity for them to try it with no investment in it at all.  As we know with the great game of hockey, once you try it and you get a taste of it, you’re going to be hooked.”

Back at Plymouth, Gordon Bowman, MAHA’s vice president of coaching, said he couldn’t be more happy with the turnout for the “Try Hockey” clinic he was assisting with.

“Big success, big success all the way around,” Bowman said. “Good showing for the kids, good showing for our on-ice help – it’s really great when you get the high school teams to come out. They did a great job, the association did a great way. Really, really pleased.”

And in case you were wondering, the kids weren’t the only ones having fun. For Hayes, who still referees youth hockey and teaches the game to youngsters in Plymouth, seeing kids grow into hockey players makes it all worthwhile.

“I’ve been doing this for 38 years because of the gratification,” said Hayes, who was given USA Hockey’s William Thayer Tutt Award in 2009 for his work at the grassroots level – the governing body’s highest form of recognition for volunteers. “I’m telling you, when you look at some of the kids who start out crying, and you feel sorry for them but you don’t help them with chairs and stuff like that, and then by Christmas they’re doing good, and if they come back into our program the second year, they’re on their way. They’re on their way. Once they learn the basic skills, these kids have fun. That’s what is rewarding for me. And some of the kids have gotten to have good careers out of it, too, so you can’t knock it.”