Raleigh, NC — Like a play on “Tell me you’re a Raleigh kid without telling me you’re a Raleigh kid,” my 7-year-old son Henry wore a T-shirt today that read “Bunch of ( Little) Jerks”. Most in the triangle know that “Bunch of Jerks” is a reference to it The celebration after the Carolina Hurricanes’ victory called Storm Surge. The fanfare from the Canes players angered NHL commentator Don Cherry in 2019 after he called the players “a bunch of jerks” at the celebrations. The fans here have made the nickname their own and my son is proud to be a Little Jerk.
Henry is even more proud that the shirt, with its huge pocket, came with brand new Hurricanes CCM hockey gear for this summer Hurricanes Learn to Play: First Goal Program. Launched league-wide six years ago, Learn to Play is an initiative of the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association. Beginners ages 5-9 can learn to play hockey in a fun, safe and affordable way. First Goal participants learn basic hockey skills through practice and games in six weekly sessions throughout the summer at rinks across the state.
Shane Willis, the Canes’ youth and amateur hockey manager and former NHL player, believes this is the best way to spread hockey in the Triangle and across North Carolina. “Our goal is to be the gold standard for Learn to Play Hockey and to engage as many hockey players and fans as possible.” Willis estimates that since 2015, the First Goal program has given more than 3,000 kids a chance to try hockey. He says families are a big part of the program’s success as they try to create not just players but fans as well. “One new player creates three new hockey fans,” explains Willis.
Triangle families often wait to register each May and seek a spot on the program at local rinks from Cary to Wake Forest. Willis says they don’t want to limit the program to just the Hurricanes’ strong local fan base. “We want the sport to grow nationwide, not just in Wake County,” he says. For this reason, rinks in Hillsborough, Greensboro and Charlotte also host the program. The Hurricanes are trying to reach out to military families by also welcoming players to an ice rink in Fort Bragg. Willis shares the program’s marketing. “This is an area that we always want to expand. How do we reach these non-traditional families more each year? We use as much social media as possible and try to make sure parents are informed and welcome in our sport,” he says.
With corporate sponsorship and funding from the NHL, a sport that has a reputation for requiring a lot of expensive equipment becomes more affordable. The bag Henry was given when fitting his gear is big enough to fit in, but it’s made for all of his pads, helmet and skates. The $250 registration fee includes six weeks of tuition, all equipment, a jersey, a t-shirt (Little Jerks), Hurricanes Hockey Kids Club membership, and two complimentary tickets to an upcoming Canes game to help keep families fans be able.
I had emailed Willis before signing up to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I had heard that like other popular kids programs the slots fill up fast so I wanted to be up to date when signing up. He recommended that I sign Henry up for basic skating lessons before the First Goal program begins in July. While not necessary as the program is designed for beginners, it helped him feel more confident on skates before donning all hockey gear for the first time.
We didn’t know what to expect when we joined other families at PNC Arena during Henry’s designated fitting time slot, but we were more than impressed with the organized and welcoming atmosphere. The Pure Hockey staff enthusiastically greeted Henry by name and congratulated him on becoming a hockey player before handing him an iPad with a visual check-off list. He wore it from the chest pad station to the tape area and every socially distant stop in between around PNC. Henry reviewed all the gear he needed on the iPad after an expert showed him how to don and fit each piece correctly.
take the ice cream
After counting down to his first day of hockey, my husband helped Henry put on all his gear before heading to the rink. With each kid’s name on their helmets and armed with little sticks, the new hockey players took to the ice with all the wobbly enthusiasm a bunch of little jerks could have.
Parents watched as the children were divided into groups to work on beginner ice skating practice and puck shooting games. My favorite part was watching the cutest thing on two skates spin and give us a thumbs up on the ice, but a close second was watching the excitement the coaches had for this new generation of players. Willis says, “This program allows all of our coaches to feel like kids again and to remind ourselves of the WHY! Why we love the game of hockey and why we come out every week to coach these future stars. Seeing their smiles, their determination, their willingness to overcome fears and seeing them fall in love not only brings us back to our childhood but gives us absolute joy in what we do.”
When I say I couldn’t believe the progress he’s made in six weeks, I mean I can’t believe it. Henry assumed he never skated with a hockey stick to pick up speed to shoot pucks in goal.
At the end of the summer, each new hockey player received a recommendation for their next steps in the sport with their certificate of completion. After the first goal, players move to KinderCanes, Lil’ Canes 1, Lil’ Canes 2, or Canes Girls Youth Hockey depending on their age and skill level. Henry is a 7-year-old second grader and just had his first practice as Lil’ Cane in Lil’ Canes 1! That Carolina Junior Hurricanes League continues the sport for athletes as they get older and more advanced.
Enrollments – I know we hear it for every kids camp and program out there, but seriously, be at the top of enrollment. The first Goal registration will take place at the beginning of May, (Check the website.) with equipment adjustments in June and the six-week program through July and August.
Communication – Willis stated her goal of a gold standard program and that’s what you get! Expect lots of informative emails. Personally, I like the weekly updates throughout the program to make the process enjoyable for each athlete and to keep parents informed.
Gear – My husband grew up playing hockey in Colorado and knows how to put on all the gear. I didn’t know what I was doing and I’m still not confident. I had to practice. When he couldn’t take Henry to practice for a week, it was up to mom to put on the gear. Practice before practice! These skates must be tighter than you think.
Security – Okay, they fall. They are kids on ice. Many for the first time. If I fell on ice now, I would lie down until someone picked me up and it would probably take days of taking ibuprofen to recover. Children? Psst! You’ll hop right back up, especially with all that gear. Henry got a lot of laughs when his siblings hit him in the living room with an object or two in the chest or head while he was carrying his gear. Between strokes, he yelled, “It doesn’t hurt at all mom! I can’t even feel it!” I also heard a parent with a second child in the program explain the importance of learning how to fall and get up safely.
Cold – As a Triangle Native, I think I was naïve as to how cold hockey practice would be. I’ve been to a lot of cool canes games at PNC but there’s a crowd, beers, snacks and cheers to warm you up. North Carolina moms know spring and summer baseball or football days can be hot, but if you’re a new hockey mom, dress appropriately. This is from my Instagram story:
During his first Lil’ Canes 1 practice yesterday, my husband sent me a video of Henry skating backwards! huh? When he was a baby with his stuffed animal, the Canes mascot, Stormy, I don’t think I ever imagined him confidently skating backwards with a hockey stick. It was amazing to see him find a sport that he enjoyed. We have no idea if he’ll stick with hockey, of course, but the First Goal program was the perfect start to his time on the ice with a bunch of other little jerks.
Amy Davis is a Monogram mother of three and fitness instructor at FIT4MOM Midtown Raleigh and web contributor for the historic Village District. She is a regular contributor to Go Ask Mom.