2015–16; this could finally be their year.
While that sentence is cryptic, area sports fans will know that those words refer to the Washington Capitals, who just won the President’s Trophy, which is awarded for having the best regular season record in the National Hockey League (NHL).
That’s great, but what matters much more is playoff success, and the Capitals are among a handful of favorites, in Las Vegas and wherever, to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time in the franchise’s 41-year history.
While such an event would mean wild celebration in the region and ensure that many a hockey fan can die happy, the team’s success is also great news for the area’s youth hockey organizations. With so much competition for the attention of young people between other less expensive sports and video games, a strong playoff run by the Caps — who normally have a solid squad, but have suffered numerous playoffs failures — means that interest in hockey will zoom to peak level.
So, just how much is the team’s historic season, as well as its efforts to further integrate into the community, bumping up interest in youth hockey?
Rachelle Weisberg, general manager of the Columbia Association (CA)-run Columbia Ice Rink, said that the Capitals have done a fine job of integrating with area youth programs, and have even helped keep the price of the sport affordable for beginners who want to find out if they enjoy “putting the biscuit in the basket,” as long-time Capitals TV analyst Craig Laughlin memorably says.
“The majority of our players are Caps fans, and we seem to get more and more every year,” said Weisberg. “The team definitely reaches out to its fan base. For the past couple of seasons, for instance, the Caps have provided dozens of free jerseys to our program.”
That’s an effort by the team and CA to whet the kids’ appetites, without a heavy tap on the bank account. CA’s program “averages 40 to 50 kids” of ages 4–13 per season, she said. “We’ve provided loaner equipment during recent years. The kids’ parents just pay $125 for lessons, which are one hour a week for seven weeks.”
Most Howard County high school-age teams practice out of the Columbia Ice Rink, in the Oakland Mills Village Center. Demand for its single sheet of ice “is definitely very high,” she said, “from September until mid-March,” when baseball, soccer and lacrosse players start taking their positions.
Those mites, as well as the squirt, pee wee and bantam players who stick with the program through age 13, can move ahead, perhaps to the Howard Huskies or a similar organization. That’s also when cost considerations come more into play: Generally speaking, fees for joining a travel team range from $800 to $2,400. New equipment for a high school-age skater can cost about $1,500 and $3,000 for a goalie; though buying used equipment softens the financial blow, as do team sponsorships.
“Only in the past 10 years have the high school-aged teams started,” Weisberg said. “Some schools have their own team, while other squads are comprised of players from various schools.”
The Howard County Youth Hockey Club, better known as the aforementioned Huskies, is the largest hockey-playing group in Howard County; its 300 members play at the Columbia Ice Rink and The Gardens Ice House, in Laurel, which has three rinks. Club President Bud Buonato also noted a groundswell of interest in the sport.
“I see more and more kids getting interested,” said Buonato, pointing to the 28 teams in the club, all based out of Columbia. “We field 17 travel teams and 10 recreational teams. We had more than 60 mites (who are 8 and under) in our program this year and have seen the greatest growth at that age range.”
The Caps’ great season has helped to hold the attention of the younger kids, but that’s not the only reason for the rise.
“If you go back to when [Alexander] Ovechkin [the Caps’, and perhaps the NHL’s, brightest superstar] was a rookie and [Ted] Leonsis became owner, the club has made a conscientious effort to heighten community outreach,” Buonato said, “notably with the Chesapeake Bay Hockey League travel club and the Capital Corridor Hockey League for the recreational teams.”
Still, Buonato cited the importance of winning. “Between the Caps being competitive basically the whole time Ovechkin [who was drafted in 2004] has been here and stepping up their efforts” to integrate into the community — “They even recently had a college fair at Kettler [the team’s practice facility in Northern Virginia],” he said — there’s “definitely more interest in youth hockey than there was five years ago.”
Game of Life
Players who aspire to greater things as they journey through adolescence have another local option: the Network Hockey Development Program (NHDP), which is owned by Capitals TV analyst Craig Laughlin and his family and also operates at the Gardens. It caters to players from ages 11–18.
“We want our kids to have played some hockey before they sign up,” said Co-Owner Linda Laughlin, Craig’s wife, who reiterated that, “More people are watching hockey and, therefore, participating in youth hockey,” and offered that the Caps have boosted youth programs since about the time her husband joined the team (as a player) in 1982; that was shortly after the “Save the Caps” campaign prevented the team from possibly being sold or even folding.
The teen years are when players start to contemplate their future, especially given the knowledge that “the odds of the kids making the NHL are slim,” she said. “Few play Division I college hockey, given that there are only 60 teams; getting a roster spot even on a Division III team is tough.
“Remember, there are 4,200 colleges in the U.S., and only 120 have an NCAA hockey program. So our goal is to help them tighten their game and be competitive on a national level, before they play before the scouts,” Laughlin said. “We’re doing a much better job in the U.S. than we ever have.”
The bottom line at NHDP, she said, “is for our players to experience that sense of belonging, then decide on their future. Hockey comes and goes, but the life lessons, like working through adversity and having goals, stays with them. And college is with you forever.
“But remember,” Laughlin said, “they can also get involved in hockey in other areas.”
Those “other areas” might include building and operating your own rink, as Tom Hendrix and company did at the Gardens. Hendrix noted that youth hockey is “not native” to the Baltimore-Washington area, which could be why its popularity can waver with the fortunes of the Capitals.
“We have a partnership with the Caps. They come here and ask what they can do to help, and I tell them, ‘Just win,’” Hendrix said. “When they’re winning, even if you go to places in Baltimore, not only are the kids’ leagues drawing more interest, but the restaurants and bars around the Inner Harbor [and the waterfront] are busier, too.”
But, no doubt, for the accomplished young player and his or her family, it’s an expensive sport. “It’s not as expensive here as it is in some other markets, like New York, Boston and the Twin Cities,” he said of the mature, colder markets with greater demands for participation and ice time.
That’s why the NHL, with entities like CA, have programs where the equipment is offered for free use to youngsters who want to give hockey a try.
“If their interests grows,” Hendrix said, “it falls upon the parents to help the child afford it.”