Kraken coaches work with Methow Valley skaters
Young hockey players – some with nary a month’s experience on ice skates – dramatically upped their game, thanks to professional coaching courtesy of the Seattle Kraken at the Winthrop Rink on two days last week.
Three coaches with the Kraken Youth Hockey Association put kids on all the teams in Winthrop – ages 5 through 19 – through drills and games. They showed them how to skate with speed and efficiency; worked on stick handling; and taught them to fall safely, slide across the ice, and get back up.
“Some of these kids had never been on ice before – they literally couldn’t stand. We just trick them into skating – we play tag,” said Justin Porter, who coaches the 6U and 10U teams. Skaters need to be able to jump, get to their knee, and stand. “Hockey is a fast-moving game – kids will fall,” he said.
The Kraken’s youth outreach program was conceived two years ago, even before the team had been officially named, said Kyle Boyd, the Kraken’s director of fan development.
The program is part of the Kraken’s broader effort to increase interest in the game and to support youths in Washington and the Pacific Northwest in building their own hockey teams, Boyd said. “It’s really important to work with younger kids at the beginning of their hockey journey – it gets them excited,” he said.
The coaches started their road show this summer (Winthrop is the only fully outdoor rink) and have worked with almost every hockey association in Washington, said Kraken Player Development Coach Katelyn Parker, one of the three coaches who came to Winthrop. It’s always fun for players to work with a guest coach, and it gives them a different perspective to learn from, she said.
Last week’s coaching session wasn’t the only chance for local kids to experience professional ice hockey. The team has offered reduced-price tickets for a Kraken game this Sunday (Dec. 19) against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Eight of the 8U skaters will get to try their blades on the professional ice in a scrimmage against Wenatchee at intermission in front of 17,000 Kraken fans, Sand said.
This year, the Winthrop Rink has six youth teams, 6U to 19U, with 130 youths involved, more than in any previous season, and 15 coaches, Sand said. All teams are mixed, except for the 19U girls’ team.
Local coach James DeSalvo, involved with hockey in the valley for 20 years, before refrigerated ice – remembers when the season was sometimes only a week long – and there were just half a dozen kids involved.
The rink offers scholarships and rents full sets of gear – which means the rink staff manage thousands of pieces of gear – but the results are clear from the high level of involvement. There’s even a waiting list this year.
“Our program would very likely have a fraction of the participation that it does if it weren’t for gear rental,” Sand said. “We aim to reduce the barrier to entry to a sport that is historically not known for its accessibility, especially in a remote location.”
Fun and character
The main focus of Winthrop’s youth hockey program is on fun and character development. There are optional tournament games and scrimmages for older players, Sand said.
The world of hockey takes the sport – and mastery of it – very seriously. “Hockey is way different than any other American sport,” with required certifications and annual trainings for coaches. “It’s a huge commitment, but it really makes a difference,” Porter said.
Still, USA Hockey emphasizes fun, especially for the youngest players. They don’t need to know all the rules of the game – they can just learn to skate and play with the puck, Porter said.
Coaches often start pushing kids around on a net – and then let them skate a little so they learn to fall and get up on their own. Or they may have kids grab the end of a stick and swing them around on the ice on their bellies – anything to make it fun, Porter said.
The coaches typically split the ice in half so they can work with small groups and give all kids time with the puck and to learn the game, particularly with younger players. They often have four games going at once, so kids don’t get bored or cold, Porter said.
Porter grew up playing hockey, but on the street, not on ice, because ice time was so expensive and hard to come by. His friends used to play at 5 in the morning before school.
The rink also hosts games for the Methow Hockey Club, which runs the adult hockey league for players from high school age through their 60s. There’s also time for open skating at the rink. “We’re so lucky here to have ice time during normal waking hours,” Porter said.