By Seth Daniel
It was nearing 70 degrees last Saturday morning, Oct. 7, but the lobby benches inside the Emmons-Horrigan-O’Neil Rink in Charlestown were brimming with young boys and girls looking curiously at hockey shin guards, trying to figure out how to tie their skates and wondering which side was the front of their shoulder pads.
It was their first day of hockey, and with the help of parents and coaches in the Bruins Academy program, all the equipment was applied correctly, and a new crop of Charlestown youth were inducted into what has historically been the sport of choice in the Town.
But in a much easier and less expensive fashion.
“I want to meet Blades (the Bruins mascot), and score a goal today,” said Chase Parenteau, 5, as he dragged his new hockey stick to the ice. “Hockey is fun.”
Mike Frawley of the Charlestown Youth Hockey Association (CYHA) said that the Charlestown program of Bruins Academy (formerly Little Bruins) has two sessions this year with just more than 100 participants – boys and girls – between ages 5 and 9. It has become a lifesaver for bringing and keeping new hockey players from the Town.
Those participating the program had already been fitted for their equipment at a grand “Fitting Day” at the TD Garden last month – with every bit of brand new equipment shipped to participants last, including skates, pads, helmets and sticks. That was all basically free of charge, Frawley said, for those who paid the $100 entry fee.
On Saturday, all that new equipment was put to good use when the youngsters took to the ice, wide eyed as former Bruin great Rick Middleton skated in to help instruct boys and girls on techniques for skating in hockey.
To add some comic relief and fun to the mix, Bruins mascot ‘Blades’ also appeared and played and skated with the kids.
It all added up to an incredibly fun and inexpensive introduction to hockey for City kids – something that has been missing in the mix as kids previously got introduced to hockey with line drills and a substantial payout from parents.
“Last year, we had extra ice time, so we opened it up to a session and a half, but there was still a waiting list,” said Frawley. “This year because there was so much demand in Charlestown, they gave us two sessions. We might be the only location that has two. That means we are able to accommodate about 100 kid. At one point, there were 29 kids in our micro hockey program. There were seven kids in one birth year. The numbers weren’t good so we wanted to do something. The Bruins Academy was a good solution because we know when the costs go up, the participation goes down. Our U8 program now has 90 kids in it. The Academy has really helped the program build up.”
Andrew Raycroft, a former NHL goalie for the Bruins and other pro teams, has become an ambassador for the program and is one of the retired professionals who helps run the clinics throughout the region – with some 30 or 40 (including Charlestown) run by the Bruins in New England.
“We want to get the kids in the (Bruins Academy) to move up to the U8’s or the Mites,” he said. “We want to make it easier and make the game more accessible. I feel pretty passionate about that, especially being here in Boston. Ice time is expensive. Equipment is expensive. When I was growing up, we had outdoor rinks all over the place. It was a different time. It was super easy to play the game. Now it’s done a 180 and it has become difficult to play hockey. If we make it more accessible, we believe we can make it easier. We want every place to be like Charlestown where the numbers go up and we keep kids in the game…Hopefully we can have these kids be excited not just about this winter, but also next winter and the winters to come.”
Bruins Academy is only in its second year in Charlestown, and it’s one of the highest-demand locations. However, the program goes back some years and comes due to the fact that participation in City areas was going down, especially in traditional hockey areas like Charlestown where entry-level costs seemed to be the mitigating factor.
Having the free equipment and four-week introductory training program available helps eliminate the barriers.
“I think that’s huge because people will put up a lot of roadblocks in the mind unless the kid really wants to play hockey,” he said. “You just don’t want to invest that kind of money if the kid doesn’t ask for it. Now, with this, it’s amazing how the participation has gone way up because of that entry-level cost being lifted. In the upper levels, we make it work with passing down old equipment, but the entry level is where it was hardest. The way Bruins Academy has it set up, it’s a lot less expensive, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s definitely a lot different that the hockey I had as a kid.”
As the time wound down in Session 1 on Saturday, a group of boys and girls gathered for a short game on the far end of the rink. Using the technique they learned from Middleton and the other coaches, they fought for the puck and they scored goals.
“I think this program is obviously good for hockey and the game,” said Raycroft, “but to be honest, I really look forward to doing it and find that I have as much fun as the kids.”