Kids, Parents Getting Hooked on Youth Hockey
Jan 29, 2019 01:39PM
● By North Hills Monthly magazine
By April Johnston
“Hockey parents,” says hockey mom and team manager Shelly Rushe, “are insane.”
They fork over thousands of dollars a season on equipment, team fees, ice time and hotels for the privilege of rising early, traveling far and shivering for hours on metal bleachers. But when Rushe’s sons—11-year-old Nate and 8-year-old Jake—take the ice, she forgets about all of that.
“I’m done,” she said. “When they’re on the ice, there’s nowhere else I want to be.”
Rushe’s family is one of thousands fully immersed in Pittsburgh’s youth hockey scene, a web of rinks, teams and programs spun across the seven-county region. According to Brian Mueller, executive director of hockey development and programming at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township, the number of participants is growing every year, fueled by the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey program, which allows the tiniest would-be skaters to try the sport before their parents make a large financial investment.
That’s how Rushe’s sons were introduced to hockey. Nate participated in the Little Penguins program at the Baierl Ice Complex in Warrendale. The 10-week, NHL-sponsored program operates in dozens of rinks across the region and outfits youngsters with free equipment that they get to keep when the session concludes. The only catch is that kids should already know how to skate.
It’s an easily surmountable hurdle for the motivated, as most rinks, including Baierl Ice, Lemieux Sports Complex and the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center in Coraopolis, offer learn-to-skate lessons for all ages. The Island Sports Center also offers a learn-to-play program for kids who have no skating experience. Director of Hockey Bob Arturo has been teaching the class for decades, using fun—he’s been known to dress as Luke Skywalker on the ice—to improve skills.
According to Mueller, the learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs are a good introduction for those who have never been exposed to the world of hockey.
“Hockey’s a bit of a nontraditional sport,” he said.
There are a number of reasons why these introductory programs help. First, parents often have never played hockey themselves, making the lingo, process and equipment an unfamiliar and intimidating venture. Second, it’s a long-term development sport, often taking kids years to master the necessary skating and stick skills. Third, and perhaps most formidable, is the price.
Equipment, ice fees and team fees often run upwards of $1,500 per season—and the better the player, the more expensive the investment. It’s not unusual for top athletes to sign up for special skill classes—such as speed or goalie training—and to travel many weekends of the year for games or tournaments.
“We would have a much bigger house if it weren’t for hockey,” Rushe said with a laugh.
Players who want to enter the hockey world after completing a learn-to-play program typically join an 8U, or Mite, league at a local rink. These players are still developing their skills and usually play cross-ice games, using the width of the rink rather than the length.
After 8U, the possibilities drastically expand. Jim Black, the general manager and director of hockey operations at Baierl, actually created a flow chart for the uninitiated. Players can join a variety of teams depending on their age and ability. Some of those teams travel, but many play in-house at their local rink, which cuts down on costs.
Both Baierl Ice and RMU have multiple travel and in-house teams in all age ranges. In fact, at last count, RMU had 550 kids between the ages of 4 and 16 playing for 42 in-house teams.
“You should see this place on a Saturday,” Arturo says. “It’s chaos. It’s so much fun.”
The top-tier players in Pittsburgh can try out for Penguins Elite at the Lemieux Sports Complex, a AAA amateur league for boys and girls who are usually on a path to playing college or professional hockey. The program is a joint effort between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
And then there are the school-affiliated teams. More than 160 teams from 60 western Pennsylvania high schools and middle schools compete in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League. In the North Hills’ area, Avonworth, Deer Lakes, Fox Chapel, Hampton, Mars, North Allegheny, North Hills, Pine-Richland, Quaker Valley, Seneca Valley and Shaler school districts all participate in the PIHL at the middle school, junior varsity or varsity level. Several of the teams are co-ed, and the season culminates with an East vs. West game, where East’s Flyer Cup champion meets the West’s Penguin Cup champion.
Nate Rushe plans to join his middle school team next season while he continues to play for his Baierl Ice-affiliated travel team, the Wildcats. He’s not the only hockey player to double dip in local and school leagues. Shelly Rushe said that it’s a common practice and that school teams are typically pretty accommodating of the travel team schedules.
Still, it’s a lot of time dedicated to hockey.
“It’s a big commitment for the whole family,” said Rushe, whose husband is also her son’s travel team head coach. “But we do it because we love to watch our kids play.”
For more information on hockey programs in the area, visit Baierl Ice Complex at www.nextstephockey.com, Robert Morris University Island Sports Center at www.rmuislandsports.com and the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex at www.upmclemieuxsportscomplex.com.