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Little Wild Learn to Play program helps kids take that first step on the ice

In the eighth year of the program, there are about 1,200 Minnesota kids involved. About 75% of the participants will go on to sign up for hockey with their local association, according to Minnesota

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Players take part in six stations during the first of four Little Wild Learn to Play sessions being held at Scheels Athletic Complex in Sartell, Minn. Players worked with coaches on skating and took part in small area games on Sept. 12, 2022.
Mick Hatten / The Rink Live

SARTELL, Minn. — Nik Jacobson grew up snoboarding and skateboarding.

But when his family moved to Sauk Rapids, another sport emerged for his kids.

"We had a neighbor and their kids played hockey. We moved in there and I was like, 'No. We're never doing it,'" he said. "But they started playing roller hockey and said, 'Dad, I want to play (ice) hockey.'

"We got roped in and it was down hill," Jacobson said with a laugh. His now 16-year-old son, Gunnar, "started playing hockey and I started playing adult league (hockey) because, if he's learning it, I might as well learn to skate."

Once Gunnar decided he wanted to play hockey, the next question was how to get him introduced to the game. They ended up finding the Little Wild Learn to Play program, which is currently in its eighth year.

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There was a similar program that CCM had been a part of out in L.A. We all sat down in a room and kind of brainstormed and hammered out ideas. All four entities were like, 'Let's do this.'
Glen Andresen

Minnesota Hockey and the Minnesota Wild teamed up to start the program for kids ages 5-8 who have never played organized hockey. CCM, one of the top brands of hockey equipment, got involved with helping provide equipment for the players.

"There was a meeting with four groups involved: the Wild, Minnesota Hockey, CCM and what was then Total Hockey (now Pure Hockey)," said Glen Andresen, Minnesota Hockey's executive director. "There was a similar program that CCM had been a part of out in L.A. We all sat down in a room and kind of brainstormed and hammered out ideas. All four entities were like, 'Let's do this.'"

Little Wild Learn to Play should not be confused with Try Hockey For Free, which is a program that many hockey associations in Minnesota use to encourage participation. While Try Hockey For Free continues to be used as one-day introduction to the game, players must provide their own equipment. The Little Wild Learn to Play program offers four one-hour sessions with coaches and all of the kids' hockey equipment for $135.

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Players take part in one of the six stations during the first of four Little Wild Learn to Play sessions being held at Scheels Athletic Complex in Sartell, Minn. Players worked with coaches on skating and took part in small area games on Sept. 12, 2022.
Mick Hatten / The Rink Live

"What we found was that a really good Try Hockey For Free event would get maybe 30% of those kids to sign up for (organized) hockey," Andresen said. "We just thought, 'We can do better than that.' One session is not enough to fall in love with hockey. Some kids are just learning how to stand up. They might not have the right equipment on.

"All four of those entities could come together to make that a better experience," Andresen said of Minnesota Hockey, the Wild, CCM and what is now Pure Hockey. "Instead of one hour, it's now four hours. Instead of hand-me-down equipment, it's all new equipment. Then you get the Wild logo on it, the support of the Wild and promotion of the Wild.

For only $50, kids who have never tried hockey before receive five on-ice sessions, head-to-toe Bauer gear and tickets to a Fargo Force game.

"We found that with four sessions, nice fitting gear and all kids out on the ice that are similar ages and similar abilities, it made it a lot more exciting and more enticing for families ... Our retention rates for Little Wild signing up are right around 75 percent. It's been a huge success and a huge way to attract more families to hockey."
When the program started, families had to go to Total Hockey to get fitted for their equipment and to pick it up. This year, the equipment could all be ordered online and delivered to the participant's house.

The program is being run at 20 locations throughout Minnesota. At Sartell's first session, there were 3-4 coaches at six stations spread out across the ice. The session was led by Sartell-St. Stephen High School boys coach Ryan Hacker, a former University of Denver player.

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Players work on getting up off the ice and standing up in hockey position during in one of six stations during the first of four Little Wild Learn to Play sessions being held at Scheels Athletic Complex in Sartell, Minn. Players worked with coaches on skating and took part in small area games on Sept. 12, 2022.
Mick Hatten / The Rink Live

An experienced coach and former player is common among the lead coaches at the Little Wild Learn to Play Program.

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"Minnesota Hockey coordinates a lead coach at all the locations and I'm one of them — I do the Bloomington location," Andresen said. "We tell them to get at least eight (coaches), but you can never have enough coaches. Our first night, I had 15 other coaches out there.

"The challenging part for us is to find enough coaches to help out. The coaches that lead these, some have done it since the first year ... they love doing this and they have people that love being a part of it, even if they don't have kids in the program. They're excited to help these beginners out."

Having that many coaches on the ice helps keep the players involved and to find help if they need it.

"I think it's great," Jacobson said. "Kids get inexpensive ice time and they have fun. There's great games. They get everyone involved. Everyone is included: everyone from beginner up to kids that can skate good, which is awesome."

All of the locations offer opportunities for boys and girls. TRIA Rink, though, also offers a program for just girls.

Jacobson has had a daughter (Sumalee) and his younger son, Milo, 7, is his third child to participate in Little Wild Learn to Play.

"(Milo's) been watching his older brother and my daughter played for a little bit and then she went to dance," Nik Jacobson said. "Everyone complains about how expensive hockey is, but it's cheap compared to gymnastics. Anyone who wants to argue with that, I'll go toe-to-toe with them."

People who want more information for the Little Wild Learn to Play Program can visit https://www.nhl.com/wild/community/ . Andresen said that not all sites remain the same from year to year and that they try to move the program around in outstate locations.

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2022 Little Wild Learn to Play program sites

Anoka — Anoka Ice Arena
Armstrong-Cooper — New Hope Arena
Bloomington — Bloomington Ice Garden
Brooklyn Park — Brooklyn Park Community Activity Center
Buffalo — Buffalo Civic Center
Delano — Delano Area Sports Arena
Dodge County — Four Seasons Arena
Duluth — Heritage Sports Center
Eden Prairie — Eden Prairie Community Center
Forest Lake — Forest Lake Sports Center
Hastings — Hastings Civic Arena
Minneapolis — Parade Ice Garden
Owatonna — Steele County Four Seasons Centre
Plymouth — Plymouth Ice Center
Sartell — SCHEELS Athletic Complex
St. Louis Park — St. Louis Park Rec Center
St. Paul — TRIA Rink (two programs, one for girls only)
Stillwater — St. Croix Recreation Center
Woodbury — M Health Fairview Sports Center

Mick Hatten is a reporter and editor for Forum News Service and helps manage TheRinkLive.com, a website dedicated to hockey. He began working for Forum Communications in November 2018 and has covered St. Cloud State University hockey since 2010. A graduate of St. Cloud State, he has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist and has been a youth hockey coach since 2014. mhatten@forumcomm.com
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