Before the Checkers took the ice this week for training camp, there was a whole new generation of skaters keeping the ice warm at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
The Hurricanes’ First Goal Program, a joint initiative between the NHL and the NHLPA that provides children who are new to the sport a set of equipment and a slate of on-ice sessions, had taken off in the team’s backyard over the last few years, prompting an expansion into the Queen City.
“The Hurricanes were really interested in bringing the program to Charlotte,” said Checkers COO Tera Black. “They had such tremendous success with it in Raleigh and they have a goal of growing the game in the region. Obviously with them having their American League team here, it made perfect sense to do so.”
The program, which is nearing the midpoint of its run, aims to introduce hockey to kids ages four to eight and possibly help push them beyond.
“This is a learn-to-play program,” said Emile Hartman, Carolina’s Youth and Amateur Hockey Assistant. “So there are a lot of coaches out there and it’s a really good stepping stone to other learn to play programs and hopefully to house league and further from there.”
The barriers of entry to hockey can be high, specifically with regards to all the equipment necessary, but the First Goal Program helps to make things easier.
“This allows people to get everything in one spot, get some really good coaching and get the opportunity to play on the Checkers’ ice,” said Black. “All of the factors were really encouraging for bringing the program here and it sold out so fast so we’re really excited about keeping it here.”
While some participants are falling in love with hockey for the first time, others are finally getting a chance to join in themselves.
“I started taking him to the rink when he was about three, then Checkers games for the first time last year,” said Paul Petrie, whose son is taking part in the program. “He’s always next to me on the couch watching games at home, so he definitely has interest in it. I saw this opportunity and couldn’t pass it up.”
By teaming up, the Checkers and Hurricanes have been able to garner interest across the entire state in their product.
“It’s important to spread the game in North Carolina,” said Hartman. “There’s a lot of room for growth and I think coming to Charlotte is a good thing. We have the help from the Checkers and help from local hockey in the area. Hopefully it spreads the game.”
“They’re a great partner in getting the little kids on the ice,” said Black of the Hurricanes. “The more players we have, the more opportunity we have that we might get more rinks. It just enables the growth all around.”
With their new home at their disposal, the Checkers are hoping that this program is just the start of many more efforts to come.
“Being in Bojangles’ Coliseum absolutely allows us to do all kinds of great things like this,” said Black. “Having the Hurricanes’ support enables us not only the funding but the coaching resources and having our players involved. Being in our own home opens up all kinds of doors.”
Led by a fleet of knowledgeable coaches like former NHLer Shane Willis, former Checkers bench boss Jeff Daniels and helpful volunteers, the First Goal Program in Charlotte has become a gateway for the participants, hopefully creating a slew of Checkers fans – and possibly players – for years to come.
“Definitely seeing the kids just being excited to get on the ice,” said Hartman of the best part of the program. “You see the kids and parents that come in on day one, a lot of them haven’t even been to a hockey rink before. We get on the ice and then after five, six, seven sessions you see them skating around and really having fun, laughing and wanting to come back to the rink. So just seeing the excitement around the game of hockey is the most important thing.”
“He has a smile on his face when he goes onto the ice and he has a smile on his face when he comes off,” said Petrie of his son. “To me that’s the most important thing.”