Reviving hockey culture: Southwest Hockey Association shooting for growth

LINDEN HILLS — Steve Jecha said there was a “culture” of spending winter weekends at the neighborhood ice rink when he was growing up in 1970s Edina.

“Hockey was different back then,” Jecha said. “Kids went down the park. They skated for eight hours a day at the park.”

Today, when even young children have schedules crammed with multiple sports and extracurricular activities, those long days at the park ice rink are, in many parts of Minnesota, long gone.

It’s just one of several factors many blame for a drop-off in hockey participation that is felt acutely in Minneapolis. Programs like the Southwest Hockey Association (SWHA) struggled with years of dwindling participation.

Until two or three years ago, that is, when the trend began to reverse and recruitment picked up, Jecha, SWHA board president, said.

Association leaders set an ambitious goal to add 100 new hockey players this year to their teams. Last year, about 60 new players joined the SWHA, which recruits from an area around Southwest High School.

Recruitment efforts are aimed at the parents of the youngest players, boys and girls aged 4–8 years old. While most of the upper-level teams finish recruitment around the start of the school year, the sign-up period for younger players remains open through the end of October.

Steve Goff, co-coordinator of the Southwest Mites program for beginning players, said building the lower levels of the program was essential for the long-term competitiveness and financial stability of the SWHA.

“What we’ve determined is the success of the program is based on numbers,” Goff said. “The more kids we have out playing hockey, the better the organization will be from all aspects.”

The expense of ice time and hockey equipment — a long shopping list of items including a stick, helmet, pads and skates — can be a barrier to participation for some families, SWHA officials acknowledged. It’s also a reason many of the state’s hockey powers are located in wealthy suburbs, they said.

Still, the association was committed to getting any child who wants to skate on the ice.

“All along here, the premise has been if there’s a kid in our geography who wants to play hockey, family finances shouldn’t stand in the way,” Goff said.

The association purchased 25 sets of equipment for Mite-level players in need of financial assistance using funds raised in the memory of Barry DeLude. DeLude, a firefighter and former SWHA coach and parent, passed away unexpectedly in 2007.

The association also set aside $5,000 for financial assistance to help fill those uniforms. Those dollars were in addition to the existing financial assistance funds, which last year totaled $8,000–9,000 in player scholarships, Jecha estimated.

If the new gear helps to bring in 100 new Mites, it would be a major achievement. There were only about 50 new Mites last year and as few as 20 just three years ago, Goff said.

The growth of the girls program has been a major part of the SWHA’s ongoing success story.

Girls’ hockey coordinator Paul Reister said the association’s Mite and Mighty Mite teams traditionally were co-ed teams. The influx of girls into the program over the past three years meant the association was able to field a girls’ U8 (under 8 years old) team, and this winter may add a girls U6 team.

“I’m seeing more interest and opportunities for them,” Reister said.

Scott McGuire, who has two girls in the SWHA and helps coach one of the teams, said many girls approach the sport and practices differently than boys. They are, in general, better listeners and less rambunctious, McGuire said.

“The girls are out there to have fun with each other and enjoy it,” he said.

Adding more players to the program — both boys and girls — helps to alleviate what McGuire called the “catch-22” of hockey: the fewer players you have, the more expensive it is to play. Renting ice time at a rink costs the same per hour no matter how many skaters are on the ice.

Last fall, one of those skaters was Armatage resident Tiffany Rittler-Foley’s son Seamus, now 6 years old and a first-grader at Armatage Community School. Rittler-Foley said cost and time commitment required for hockey was a slight concern for her, but she also knew players who don’t start early often struggle to catch up.

“Watching how much he loved it and how great those coaches were with the kids, it was totally worth it,” she said.

Players who stick with the program have something to look forward to. Last year, Jecha took 31 of the oldest players on a trip to Sweden where they played hockey and interacted with Swedish players.

Jecha hoped to repeat the event at least every other year as another way to attract and retain players.

“[Hockey has] changed a lot from when we were kids,” he said, “but it’s still something we’re passionate about.”