“I did an outreach in Puerto Rico with the Florida Panthers awhile back, and we gave sticks to a bunch of little kids in a cul-de-sac. And literally in ten minutes, they looked like they were playing hockey, and they previously knew nothing of the sport. They were holding the stick correctly, stick handling, making plays, and because they were good little soccer players, they were able to understand the concept right away. Spinning off a player, controlling the ball putting their body between the ball and another player. They could understand those concepts really easily. That was one of the reasons it was so appealing to me, when I came back to the US from the camps I was at in Oslo, Norway. It’s a great transition sport, and it’s a great off ice conditioning sport I can never remember when I had one of my hockey teams playing floorball as a training session where I didn’t literally have to take the sticks and tell them it was time to go home. They just won’t quit playing! The kids never want to quit, they’ll play until you turn the lights off. If you put this in every school in the Tri-State area, you’d have thousands of more hockey players within a year. The floorball purists would get mad because I often don’t refer to it as floorball, I just call it floor hockey. I’m trying to grow the game of hockey with it, but eventually it will grow floorball as a separate sport as well. There are only so many people who will be able to skate. In Sweden floorball and ice hockey don’t work that well together because they are competing for the same finite group of players. But here, we’ve got more kids in the Bronx than Sweden has in the whole country:) “
We asked Mike to tell us a little more about what the NHL teams are doing with floorball and he told us
“The NJ Devils have converted their whole intro program to floorball. The sticks look great, they’re cheap, they’re safe, and you can put kids into hockey with minimal equipment, Especially in today’s world, nobody wants to be sharing helmets , gloves, shin guards and elbow pads, with floorball you give them a stick and they’re off to the races. We do a program called “The Gift of Hockey” and the NY Islanders have really embraced this. It’s a duffle bag with 30 sticks, 30 balls, and two foldable nets. It’s the exact same thing as when you walk into a gym and there’s a rack of basketballs. The kids pick them up and go play. So our program that I introduced to the NHL is the gift of hockey program. The teacher rolls out the duffle, hands out the sticks, and in seconds they’re playing. And it’s safe. Because the way the stick is designed you can’t hold it in two hands and run, it’s too short. The way it’s weighted , your natural tendency is to run with the blade on the ground, which automatically puts your stick in the right position. When I first brought this over, I was coaching Iona prep, and it became our whole dry land training. Four teams of three on three, we rented a gym and played floorball every day. And to this day, it’s probably one of the most fun things they’ve done in a non-ice hockey session.”
“The NHL spends about $680.00 a bag to give equipment to a school. And our statistics show that for every school you give a stick to, you’re probably touching 209-400 athletes in each different district.The Florida Panthers did 360 packages, so in our mind that means conservatively 108,000 kids exposed to hockey in a year. , Crazy numbers! These sticks should be in every NWHL community as well. If they could get a sponsor and do ten of these floorball packages in each town, the number of fans would skyrocket. And you would give a vehicle for schools to have your NWHL players come to their schools to teach hockey. Kelly Babstock (our former #8, now with the Toronto Six) is doing just that right now. I watch her in downtown Norwalk and she’s out there in all those parks in Norwalk with floorball."
In addition to coaching with the Whale, Mike coached a youth team in the Danbury Arena last season, And this year he will be coaching a team in Stamford. He has also worked with youth hockey organizations over three years. So we asked Mike to talk about some of the issues and problems facing youth hockey and where some of the answers might be found. He believes
“The skating and the cost are real issues. You go from a free “Try Hockey” event, and then the next guy knocking at your door says I want you to play for my Mite team, that’s $4,000.00 a year. So we need to try to get programming to bridge the gap. I think in our area, here in the northeast, you shouldn’t have to pay more than $800.00 a year to play hockey. I don’t care where you live, it’s feasible. You can actually do it with creative use of things like getting more kids on the ice, better instruction, and better ice usage and organization. You can easily give many, many thousands of more kids access than what we are doing today. I think we are actually failing quite a bit in how we can grow the sport, which we could change if we just managed it a different way. So “Hockey Is For Everyone” until you have to pay for it. It’s great that we can give kids free hockey days, but the statistics are pretty miserable actually, from a kid that tries hockey for free and gets the opportunity versus them continuing to play hockey down the road. So we have this great initiative for bringing kids in, but we don’t have a gateway to enable them to stay in. So all you’re really doing is teasing that 6,7,8 year old kid and their parent that they could have a future in hockey when the reality is, they probably can’t “
“That’s because you’re not going to get free equipment the rest of your life. I just bought a pair of skates, $900.00 for a pair of skates. That should be the cost for your whole season! We are just pricing it out of reach by making people believe that the only path in hockey is travel hockey. And I just don’t think it is.The New York Rangers locally, have done a terrific job, and Shannon Doyle (with Sarah Hughson & Brooke Wolejko) just worked with them at a summer camp, And they are one of the leaders in the country with their U12 girls program, they were phenomenal. And the cost was like $250.00 for the whole year. And those girls got on the ice twice a week and had real coaching. We have to get rid of the stigma that house hockey, in-house hockey, rec hockey isn’t real hockey. Once we get rid of that idea that it’s just for fun and for lesser skilled players, there’s real viability in having more localized programs.”
“Canada might be worse.Their numbers are actually going in a different direction from the US. There is a problem up there, they see it, and they are trying to change it. More kids are playing basketball and soccer and other sports now in Canada than hockey. You’d never believe that! How are the registration numbers bigger in basketball than hockey? Demographics have changed anf we are pricing kids out. : How do you play hockey in downtown Toronto? You can’t afford to play hockey there unless you are wealthy. Same thing in Westchester County, it’s very hard to be on a budget and play hockey in Westchester County or Fairfield County. But again I’m more on the side of not seeing why that’s happening. It don’t see why rinks can’t see that financially, they’d actually be better off running rec hockey and house leagues. I always say to people I’m advising: Why give your money to a rink up in Marlbourogh Massachusetts, when the kids could be home playing each weekend. Why give Exxon and Mobil and the Marriott and Hilton money, why not keep that money within your own facility?”
“So I work with a lot of organizations that want help with this. These are usually parents that are volunteering to be presidents, Vice Presidents and treasurers of these youth organizations, and what I try to do is bring my 35 years of experience and kind of give them a fast track by having a professional hockey director by their side. Just to help them get through all the trials and tribulations of running a youth hockey program. I’m dealing with a situation in New York right now where in 2001 a couple of Dad’s went crazy and started an initiative to build a roller hockey rink, beautiful state of the art, lights, scoreboard, boards the whole thing. And then their kids aged out, nobody took over, nobody had the same passion. And the last five years it’s been closed, weeds are growing, and the boards stolen. You need continuity, having organizations that have some type of professional advising them, to keep the momentum going and then feeding the bottom all the time. Making sure you don’t just have 14U and 16U parents on the board of directors, you have to have your 6U, 8U and 10U parents on there too, so you are always feeding that group. What happens is, most people don’t get involved as board members in youth hockey organizations until their kids are Bantams, and they are focusing on that Bantam program. They are not thinking about how many U8 are in the program for example. And I think that ties in with all hockey, the growth of the NHL, the growth of the NWHL. Like the joke: There are 18,500 hockey fans in New York and you see them every week at the Garden.” he laughed. "We are around hockey people all the time, so we think there are a lot of hockey people, but there really isn’t, we just happen to be around them all the time.”
Mike feels that the NWHL can build on the passion of the hockey fans in their markets.. He reasoned
”You don’t see this in a lot of other sports, I’m not getting calls in December for baseball, wondering when we’re going to have the schedule out. In some other areas of the country, yes. But hockey, it is just a very unique group of people that join the sport. Places like BU, BC, and Providence built a culture of hockey in the northeast, and that’s great, you want to see that. And each youth organization in the NWHL cities have to look at that, and figure out how do we use the momentum of the NWHL to build our youth hockey organizations. Girls want to see other girls playing hockey, it’s a very powerful message. I had two girls on my youth team in Danbury and they would sit around after practice and watch our Whale practice. And they see these women doing the same drills they were doing, but at a crazy competitive and skilled level. They’re not only in awe, but it’s an aspirational vision too. Like: Wow, I could actually do this! Somebody posted on social media that this year’s draft class that was signed and is playing were in high school when the NWHL was formed. People were saying there would never be a pro league, and now these girls are signing their first pro contracts. It’s incredible to see this in the hockey world where five or six years is nothing, What’s been accomplished in that short period of time to have six teams representing a professional league is unbelievable."
"And for the girls who actually saw that materialize what that says to me is that for every 11 12 and 13-year-old girl now it’s no difference to them. They’ve always seen pro women’s hockey. And that is a really powerful message. That’s why I think when the pros and the youth are working together I’m really a proponent of that. If people are going to be beating each other down that’s only going to hurt everyone. And I think this is a viable fun, energized ownership that is putting out a product as best they can, and with the limitations that are existing, in fighting through all those limitations. It’s a great opportunity for these little five and six year old girls to see girls with ponytails and facemasks out there skating and playing. When my my boys are watching hockey. I’d much rather have my sons watch a college hockey game than a pro hockey game because it looks more like them. This is what the game really looks like the NHL, those guys are freaks! They are doing things that normal people just can’t do.”