There are a lot of great things about growing up and playing the game in the State of Hockey.
For all the barriers to the sport potential players might face elsewhere around the country, one thing Minnesota can take pride in is the availability of free gear.
Equipment drives, association grants, the wide availability of second-hand stores and loaner programs are some of the ways the game continues to grow through Minnesota’s revered non-profit community-based model.
Minnesota, one of perhaps a handful of places, certainly the largest, and the district under USA Hockey that is driven and funded at the community level, is uniquely positioned to offer a solution to the equipment problem. Elsewhere, there are clubs, AAA, and other kinds of teams assembled from widespread geographic areas. Here, hockey is played with teams made up of kids who go to school together and live in the same neighborhoods.
That mentality is part of what drives the success of equipment sharing and redistribution.
“There’s a greater propensity to give to a community you are a part of, and that’s what helps drive this incentive to recycle equipment to help foster that sustainable community feel,” says Connor Clark, Minnesota Hockey’s Hockey Programs Manager. “In other parts of the country, hockey isn’t localized the same way.”
That means a bounty of free or greatly reduced gear awaits newcomers to the game, especially at the younger ages. To outfit a Mite in more remote or less connected parts of the country might require about $300 in startup money just to get him or her the equipment needed to take the ice. That’s not the case in Minnesota, where gear is abundant and cheap and, in some places, can be checked out for a season like a library book.
ELIMINATING BARRIERS TO ENTRY
Equipping players is one barrier being taken down through grassroots efforts like association equipment drives and the Minnesota Wild Equipment Drive.
Like all NHL teams, the Wild promote the game within the community, though they have the unique opportunity and reach to collect and redistribute gear from the metro to more remote places in the state. Partnering with programs like the DinoMights, whose growing recognition and efficiency mean they can now collect the gear faster than they can use it, that generosity is shared with aspiring young hockey players in all corners of the state.
Those efforts go particularly far in programs like Minnesota Hockey’s Never Too Late program, targeted towards potential players aged 9-13, where organizers have taken concerted efforts to simplify exposure to the game and eliminate barriers for new and interested families.
WHAT’S IMPORTANT? WHAT’S ACCEPTABLE?
The athlete’s preference plays a factor, though some may prioritize skates and/or a stick. Aside from that, hockey development leaders in general feel this is perhaps a good place to cut costs and use what is available.
“When it comes to even skates, yeah, you want something functional, but the reality is the kid is going to grow out of it in maybe six months,” Clark says. “So buying high-end skates might not mean the most to performance or development at this point.”
“There are so many adjustments for growing bodies and learning of the fundamentals of the game,” he added. “Those fundamentals aren’t necessarily enhanced by a marginal increase in the quality of equipment.”
Aside from what is available through your local association, there is likely more used equipment available here through used sporting goods stores and social media via places like Facebook Marketplace than anywhere else in the country. Websites like eBay and Sideline Swap cast a wider net as well, giving people more options and choices while seeking inexpensive equipment options.
LOANER PROGRAMS FOR NEW PLAYERS
Many associations offer the use of some equipment to beginners, which is again something unique to Minnesota in its size and scale.
One program that offers free loaner equipment is Armstrong Cooper Youth Hockey Association, whose equipment manager, Ryan Meissner, is walking proof of its effectiveness after coming into the sport by chance when his son became curious about the sport six years ago. With a basketball background himself, Meissner was naturally hesitant to make such an investment when he questioned whether the interest would still be there after trying it or even a year down the road.
“Without having access to that equipment to try it out, I don’t know if I would have done it,” he said. “For me and so many other families, it took down a huge barrier.”
But the Meissner’s became a hockey family, and eventually he became the association’s equipment manager, galvanized by his own experience. The practice was that new or potential Mite families could check out an entire bag of gear and return it in March. That grew into checking out the gear somewhat infinitely as a Mite and more or less bringing it back when the player outgrew it to swap for something that fit.
“We learned that if the kid wants to continue to play, they are going to need to continue to use the gear,” Meissner says. “We don’t want to take it back, and that's a reason not to continue. We don’t want someone to play just for a year and then be done because they can’t afford the equipment or if they are still unsure how long the kid will want to play. If they need equipment, we want to provide it for them all the way through Mites.”
Meissner says he figures at least 75 percent of new players at Armstrong Cooper take advantage of the loaner program, and about half of all Mites utilize it to some degree (checking out a full set of gear is not required).
Available equipment means access, opening doors, and growing the game in a pragmatic way.
“I don’t think it can be overstated how important the availability of equipment is to our program,” Meissner says. “We have players from all walks of life interested in hockey, and to be able to provide it to them is super cool. Just imagine all the untapped players that can be reached, players who could play for your association, play for a long time and maybe the rest of their lives if we can get the word out, and give them that chance to try it.”