If Saturday’s late-season snowfall taught locals anything, it’s that, despite all the warm weather in the world – including the previous day’s balmy spring-like temperatures – it may still be a bit early for planting that vegetable garden.
In fact, here in North Carolina (where if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute), it’s pretty hard to know when to sow seeds.
At the Triangle SportsPlex, however, it’s never too early to plant a seed, and the facility proved to be fertile ground – or ice – as dozens of young athletes aged 4 (or 4-ish) to 9 years old took to the rink Saturday for the USA Hockey-sponsored “Try Hockey for Free” clinic.
The event was one of an estimated 200 hockey clinics across the country aiming to encourage kids to try the sport as a part of Hockey Weekend Across America, presented by CCM.
“Hockey Weekend Across America has become a staple on the hockey calendar in our country,” USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said on the organization’s website ( www.usahockey.com
). “Not only is it a time to celebrate the game and those involved at all levels, but it also gives us a chance to share this great sport with those who may not have had the chance to enjoy it previously.”
USA Hockey also sponsored “Wear Your Favorite Jersey Day” on Feb. 15, inviting fans to display their hockey pride. To cap off the weekend, “Celebrate Local Hockey Heroes” day was on Feb. 17, encouraging hockey programs nationwide to honor their local hockey heroes.
Local organizers at the SportsPlex were afraid that the wintry precipitation that hit the Triangle area on Saturday might chill interest in weathering the roads and attending the event. SportsPlex hockey director Ken DiOrio was very pleased with the walk-up (or skate-up) participation, however.
“I looked at the (roster) this morning, and we had about 14 signed up,” he said. “When we got out here, I think we counted 24. There was a part of me that was nervous driving here that (the snow) was going to scare everybody off, but this has been amazing.”
SportsPlex aquatics / rink operations director Andrew Stock shared in DiOrio’s appraisal of the turnout.
“This well exceeded our expectations,” he said. “I think (the snow outside) actually created a little bit more of a hockey feel.”
DiOrio also said that the end of the NHL lock-out and the Carolina Hurricane’s early season success may also be fueling interest: “The end of the lock-out has probably brought more attention back to the sport again,” he said.
Hailing originally from a traditionally hockey-hungry region, DiOrio said he tries to keep his goals realistic.
“It’s different for me, because I’m originally from Philadelphia,” he explained. “Here it’s recreation; there it’s a need.
“My biggest goal with this event today is to see people waking up to the sport,” he said. “It’s a fantastic sport; it’s my favorite sport. If more people had access to it in a format similar to this, I think a lot more people would catch the bug, continue to try to play, and progress.”
If there was any indication that the event was a rousing success, it lay in the smiles of virtually every face coming off the ice. Such was certainly the case with 7-year-old Cameron Forbes and his younger brother Elliot, nearly 5.
“We come up most Friday nights for the public skating, but this is the first time for this,” the boys’ father Malcolm Forbes said. “We were in here public skating last night, and we just saw the sign.
“I’d love to get them into it, because they already skate well,” Forbes added. “They’re not used to hockey skates, though, so they’d have to get used to that. I think the next time we go public skating, we’ll have put them in hockey skates so they can get used to them.”
The boys differed on their favorite aspect of the clinic, however.
“I liked the free-skating,” Cameron Forbes said.
“My favorite part was when I scored my first goal,” countered younger brother Elliot.
For Olivia Neal, 11, the event ended too soon.
“This is just some impromptu thing,” Olivia’s father Gilbert Neal explained. “Olivia had two brothers (doing this), but they stopped, and she’s still here.”
The younger Neal said she’d had some stick-and-puck experience before.
“I’ve played floor hockey before at school,” she said, “and I was really good at it.”
Three-year-old Miles Fletcher may not have memorized the sport’s lingo as yet, but he was decisive as to his favorite activity.
“I liked skating with the hockey balls,” Fletcher said.
For those who missed the event, learn-to-play opportunities abound at the SportPlex.
“If people go to the website, they’ll find out about the Rink Rats and Learn to Play Hockey programs,” DiOrio said, “and even adults can join the Adult Learn to Play and Adult Prep coming up. We have introductory hockey classes for just about every age. If they feel like they’re interested, they can give a call here (919-644-0339) or send me an email ( KDiOrio@trianglesportsplex.com
The 90,000-square-foot SportsPlex is one of the state’s largest recreational facilities and one of only two facilities in the U.S. offering an ice arena, aquatics center, and a fitness center under one roof.
But those interested best investigate soon, because seeds sown in the dead of winter are likely to reap big rewards for the sport, especially when more girls like Olivia Neal discover that the sport eventually provides a chance to check the boys and knock them to the ice.
“Oooh,” Olivia Neal sang with a wide grin. “That would be so cool.”