Whether it is due to costs or a lack of accessibility, or both, the number of kids enrolled in minor hockey across Canada is in decline. That’s been the case for several years and it has become increasingly worrisome for everyone involved in the game, including Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier.
In response, equipment manufacturer Bauer and Hockey Canada launched The First Shift in the fall of 2014, part of an initiative to introduce one million new families to the game by 2022.
Messier immediately felt compelled to get involved in the program, which will be running in Golden for the second consecutive year this February.
“It came as a shock to all of us that nine out of ten Canadian kids were not playing hockey. I think we all thought that it was going to be much higher than that…we wanted to figure out why,” Messier said in a phone interview.
“One of the things that came back to us was that it was not easy to enter into the game if you didn’t come from a traditional hockey family. We wanted to make it easy for kids to try the sport.”
As a result, Bauer’s First Shift program was born.
“It really is about the first shift, the first time you are able to put the equipment on and go on the ice and actually skate,” the six-time Stanley Cup Champion added.
The First Shift gives children from ages 6 to 10 who have never played organized hockey a chance to learn. Kids are outfitted from head to toe in brand new equipment and given the opportunity to participate in six on-ice sessions, all for the bargain basement price of $199.
Kids in Golden will get that opportunity once again this year, and locals will see that $199 cost come down to $99 thanks to the money donated by Kraft in 2012.
Messier grew up playing the game, getting his start while he and his family were living in Portland, Ore., where his dad was playing. His father later started the minor hockey league program there and the city has become a thriving junior hockey market with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.
He says he often wonders what his life might have been like if he wasn’t introduced to the game at a young age.
“I can see where it would be intimidating for some. I think that hockey, at times, the terminology around the game can be confusing, especially for some of the immigrant families that have come into Canada that don’t really know the game at all. How do we give those kids the opportunity?” he said, adding that under the current model, kids have to sign up for the entire year and parents spend hundreds of dollars on equipment before knowing whether their child even likes hockey.
“We wanted to create a program that gave them a six week trial.”
His advice for the youngsters in Golden who are set to lace them up for the first time is pretty simple.
“I think hockey, first and foremost, should be fun…it’s a place to go and meet some new friends and have fun, and that’s what hockey should be,” he said.
“The further you play and the better you get, there’s other things that come into play. But these first experiences there should be nothing more than getting out there and having fun and really enjoying the experience.”
Messier says he tries to get to as many communities that are hosting the program as he can, saying that it is inspiring to see young Canadians enjoying the game that he has played his whole life.
There are still some openings available for Golden’s The First Shift program. Parents who are interested in registering their kids can log on to thefirstshift.ca or contact Tyler Gulliford from Golden Minor Hockey by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.