Starting hockey doesn’t have a timetable – It’s Never too late

by Heather Rule, 10/14/2021

Minnesota Hockey’s Never Too Late camp gives older kids a shot to play

Minnesota is known as the state of hockey. But when it comes to getting kids started with the sport, there’s something to clear up.

“People have this idea that … you have to put a mouth guard in your kid’s mouth in the hospital, otherwise it’s too late to play,” said Mike Terwilliger, hockey programs manager at Minnesota Hockey.

Maybe it’s because of the skating skills involved, but there’s a misconception that kids need to start playing hockey at a very young age, perhaps before they even start school. Or, the belief goes, it’s too late.

Not so. That’s where Minnesota Hockey’s Never Too Late camp comes in. Held twice a week during the summer, the camp is geared toward children around the ages of 9 to 12 who haven’t played organized hockey before but want to give it a try.

Kids can start playing hockey at a little bit older age and still have a great experience. Some start later and catch up to other kids who’ve played longer, or some are slower to pick up on skating skills, which is okay, too. The ultimate goal of hockey or sports in general isn’t necessarily to play at an elite level.

“The goal is just to play, have fun and to participate,” Terwilliger said. “There’s so many good lessons, life lessons, out of sports. It’s important to learn how to be a good teammate and to learn how to work hard and to learn new skills.”

One of Minnesota Hockey’s core efforts is to grow the game of hockey. This core initiative spurred the creation of the Never Too Late camp in 2019, hoping to introduce the game to kids that didn’t have the opportunity to play when they were younger. It wasn’t held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but grew with more participants this past summer. The camp started out in suburban Woodbury with 22 kids, with 21 of them later going on to play organized hockey during the winter.

Never Too Late is a four-week camp in July that meets twice a week. It expanded in 2021 to two venues in the Twin Cities, more than doubling the inaugural camp with 53 skaters. Minnesota Hockey heard back from 45 of those campers in post-camp surveys, and 39 of those 45 skaters plan to play hockey this winter.

The camp would like to expand again in 2022 with three sites, according to Terwilliger.

“We didn’t want it to be like just another 8U camp,” Terwilliger said. “We wanted it to be for players that want to be out there with kids their age and of a similar experience level, and it was great.”

Coaches have the campers work on skating at the start of each practice before dividing them into three groups to run through various hockey drills and stations. The kids also were grouped by ability, adjusting the activity, game or drill based on the skill level of a particular group. They focused on skating, puck handling or put together an obstacle course to “make sure they’re having fun,” Terwilliger said.

The idea for the camp stemmed from interest in communities to provide hockey opportunities to kids ages 9-12 who are new to the sport. For kids in that age range that want to give hockey a try, it’s hard to find things for them to do, according to Terwilliger. Skating with 4-year-olds who are also just starting out isn’t exactly the best fit. There’s also the option to skate with kids their own age at a summer camp with kids that already play travel hockey.

“So then there’s those kids that get out there and are embarrassed because they feel like they’re behind or the kids are zipping around,” Terwilliger said. “So they’re kind of in this weird spot.”

Kids might want to give hockey a try out of curiosity or skating on a neighborhood pond, Terwilliger said, but it can be hard to find something that isn’t too intense or too much of a commitment right off the bat.

There’s no requirement that campers have to be able to skate coming in, though most of them have some skating ability or have been on skates at least a couple of times, Terwilliger said.

“They’ve got all these kids out there that are chomping at the bit to try hockey,” Terwilliger said. “And so we’re just out there to help give them some practice to give them some skills and run through some basic drills.”

Minnesota Hockey tries to keep the cost down as much as possible and helps families fill the gaps in finding used equipment for their skaters. All campers are required to have full hockey equipment for safety.

They also run through equipment basics with campers at the first practice or two, making sure campers know how to put on the equipment, how it should fit/feel and how to hold the hockey stick. Many of them might already have an idea, watching a brother or sister, or friend, though some don’t.

One of the other misconceptions Terwilliger has found is this idea that one has to skate six days a week and spend all kinds of money to be a good hockey player. He debunks that as well, saying that while that’s an option, as with any sport, hockey can be really affordable and easy to play as well without a high price tag or time commitment.

At the end of camp, Minnesota Hockey acts as a resource for families, getting them information about registering for the Minnesota Hockey rec league. They’ll give parents an idea of the commitment, cost and how to reach out to their local hockey association. A lot of the families aren’t hockey families, so they need a little help navigating the initial process of getting involved with hockey, according to Terwilliger.

The hope is all the campers have a great experience, keep skating and join a team later that winter.

“The overarching theme and focus is making sure that the kids are having fun and that they’re comfortable out there,” Terwilliger said. “Make them think they’re rock stars and praise them … for everything they’re doing.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.