The first time a young hockey player steps onto the ice can leave a lasting impression.
The goal of Hockey Canada's Initiation Program is to make children's first contact withhockey a safe and positive experience so those players will return to the rink with smiles on their faces.
As national spokespeople, Paul Kariya of the St. Louis Blues and Jayna Hefford of Canada’s National Women's Team believe in the structured, learn-to-play concept of the program designed to introduce beginners to the game's basic skills.
"I believe it is important for every player to have access to the best program in the world for developing skills, while having fun," Kariya says. "Practice is so important, because it allows the kids to make more passes, take more shots on net and have the puck on their stick more than in any game."
"The Initiation Program sets the foundation for all future enjoyment and success our young players have in the sport of hockey,” Hefford adds.
Other goals of the program include: developing and understanding of basic teamwork through participation in a variety of activities and adapted game situations, creating and refining basic motor patterns, and introducing beginners to the concepts of cooperation and fair play.
"It makes no sense for kids to play organized games until they have reasonable mastery of skating, puck handling, passing and shooting," explained Dr. Murray Smith, a sports psychologist who works with both the Edmonton Oilers and Kelowna Rockets.
Doug Baba, who supervises the Initiation Program for the Prince George Minor Hockey Association, takes his job seriously.
"My focus is to make sure they come back ... that they have enough fun that they want to come back next year," said Baba, adding that Prince George has a great group of volunteer coaches who work hard to teach young players the proper skills right off the bat. "You wouldn't have a minor hockey association without the initiation group. It really comes down to what you learn in your first two to three years."
In Calgary, the Initiation Program has had a pair of high-profile sponsors behind it for the past five seasons.
"It's very unique in hockey," said Kirk Reynolds, coordinator of the Timbits Flames Program for Hockey Calgary. "The young kids are obviously the foundation for which all hockey revolves around. Everything is started at the Initiation level."
While the young players learn valuable skills they'll carry with them throughout their hockey careers, instructors also get a feeling of satisfaction from being involved with the program.
"You just want to develop their passion for the game," Reynolds said. "What you get back is just the fact that the kids are having fun. They enjoyment that they derive from the program is just everything. That's the greatest reward for any instructor - to see how much they improve and how much they get out of it."