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Program helps kids fall for hockey


The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday February 17, 2013 6:46 AM

Judging by the panic in Tanner Bachman’s eyes, the thought of stepping onto the ice for the first time was similar to someone who can’t swim jumping into the middle of the ocean.

But after 15 minutes of watching from the edge of the rink, the 6-year-old, dressed in full hockey gear, gingerly slid on the trembling blades beneath him and joined the other kids whizzing by.

He fell four seconds later. He got up and fell again. And again and again. Each fall was followed by laughter, a few more steps and nervous cheers from his mom, Kim.

“This isn’t about finding the next hockey stars. It’s about exposing as many kids as we can to the game and let them have some fun,” said Andy Guthrie, Tanner’s Upper Arlington neighbor and a volunteer with the Columbus Ice Hockey Club. “It’s amazing what has happened around this city with kids and hockey since the Blue Jackets came here.”

The rapid growth of youth hockey around Columbus was on display yesterday morning at the Ohio Expo Center Coliseum, where about 40 kids and their families participated in the “Hockey Is for Everyone” program.

The event sponsored by the National Hockey League and the youth hockey club was free and geared for kids ages 4 to 12 who largely have never laced on a pair of skates, let alone tried whacking a puck.

The kids on the ice represented both the inner city and suburbs. And that’s exactly how John Haferman, the youth hockey club’s director, envisioned the program when it started about 15 years ago.

About 65 percent of the kids in the program live below the poverty line. But with support from the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, the Blue Jackets and other organizations, Haferman is able to bring hockey in some form to about 3,000 kids each year. That includes organized youth teams, player development, skating enrichment, street hockey programs and generally exposing the game to kids who never have seen a sheet of ice.

Hockey is among the most expensive of all youth sports, with typical start-up costs ranging from $600 to $800. But Haferman gets kids outfitted for $50 to $150.

“I think more and more kids are drawn to it because it’s constant action and every kid is involved in the play,” he said. “It’s not like basketball, where one or two kids do all the shooting and only a few play most of the minutes.”

Nearly everyone associated with youth hockey credits the Blue Jackets, money from the organization’s foundation and the NHL team’s Junior Jackets’ “Learn to Play” program for helping spread the game.

The presence of an NHL team has fueled five major youth hockey organizations, 13 sheets of year-around ice, 20 high-school programs composed of 32 teams, and 4,500 youth players. There were only 150 youth hockey players in 1995.

“We have worked hard to break down the barriers and make the game accessible to any child that wants to be a part of it,” said J.D. Kershaw, the Blue Jackets’ vice president of marketing and fan development. “Despite the lack of success (the Blue Jackets) have had on the ice, we have seen amazing growth,” Kershaw said. “But when this team does have success, and it will, you will see another spike in participation from our youth.”

Meanwhile, Haferman and an army of other hockey enthusiasts will reach out to give kids a chance to play by driving into the inner city.“I can’t put into words what John and all these people have done for these kids,” said Tamika Whitehead, an East Side resident who helped round up 10 kids for Haferman’s early morning pick-up. “They would have zero chance to experience hockey without programs like this.”

Thomas Levinson | DISPATCH photos

Justin Raymond, 17, helps Nathan Bateman, 5, get his skating legs under him during the “Hockey Is for Everyone” program at the Ohio Expo Center. About 40 kids and their families participated.