When nonhockey parents find themselves with a kid who’s begging to take the ice, the prospect of sliding into a new sport can be intimidating. Beyond having to learn what the hell icing actually is, there’s also some truth to the youth hockey parent stereotype: bundled up at a rink at 6 a.m. with a big tumbler of coffee and always within earshot of those bro-y dads regaling each other with their own stories of hockey glory.

As the mom of a now-high-school hockey player, I was overwhelmed at first, too. The gear, the schedule, the rules, the expense—it was just…a lot. While I’m a longtime hockey fan, I’ve only eased my way around the rink on white figure skates. But after years of posting up in the bleachers of various rinks in the metro area at all hours of the day, I’ve come to the realization that hockey is a terrific sport for Colorado kids. Not only does it engage brain and body with the combination of stickhandling and skating, but there’s a vibrant community of hockey families keeping the game strong here.

With the Colorado Avalanche, the DU Pioneers, and the East Angels bringing even more hockey cred to the Mile High City, it could be a great time to give in to your budding Cale Makar. Here, a few tips and tricks for getting your kid—and yourself—ready for a faceoff.

Hit Up the Local Rink

Before trying hockey, kids should have some basic skating skills. If you don’t skate like Nate, USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body, has a standardized program for teaching your kids to skate and then introduces them to hockey. Most rinks have Learn To Skate (L2S) classes year-round that will provide the how-tos for getting upright on blades. Once kids have the fundamentals down, the next step is the organization’s Learn To Play Hockey class. From there, local rinks usually offer co-ed recreational teams for children as young as five or six. A few rinks also offer girls-only teams. All area squads are affiliated with USA Hockey (although the local affiliate is called the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association) and use trained volunteer coaches—typically those aforementioned hockey dads, most of whom will actually grow on you with their enthusiasm for the sport and the kids’ development.

Get the Best Bargain in Youth Hockey

If your child has some basic skating experience, but—and this is important—has not yet registered for a USA Hockey team, consider starting with the Avalanche Learn to Play Hockey program. This NHL-backed program gives first-time players (from four to nine years old) a full set-up of gear (to keep!) and weekly instruction for six weeks for only $229. Sign up early as these programs fill up.

Grab the Right Gear

Hockey requires a lot of gear—think football and soccer combined—including helmet, chest pads, elbow pads, gloves, neck protector, padded shorts, shin pads, and of course skates and a stick. For the most part, it’s not worth shopping online for hockey gear as fit is paramount for safety. As such, second-hand sports shops can be your best option for young players. My advice? Start there.

Sports Plus on Old South Gaylord Street in Washington Park has helped our family manage skates—which generally run a size smaller than sneakers, but kids will outgrow at the same rate—for a decade. But for the times when you do need to buy new gear (usually helmets or if used gear isn’t available when you need it) feed your kid a snack, set aside some time, and go make friends with the salespeople at a hockey-specific shop. As a clueless mom of a youth hockey player, I was grateful for the knowledgeable service we had at Denver’s local hockey shops, like locally owned Centre Ice or Pure Hockey. Quick mom tip: Don’t forget to purchase an equipment bag your player can manage—coaches will remind you to never carry your young players’ bags as kids need to learn they are responsible for their equipment. Also, set up a routine where they have a place to hang gear after every skate. Wet gear left in a hockey bag creates a very specific kind of odor that will haunt your nostrils.

Learn What a Pee Wee Is

Once kids are playing organized hockey, USA Hockey’s divisions are formed into two-year age groups.

Mite: ages eight and under
Squirt: ages eight to nine
Pee Wee: ages 11–12
Bantam: ages 13–14
Midget: ages 15–17

Skills and certain elements of game play are added in each division. Mites usually play a cross-ice game with three horizontal playing zones in the rink. The age for half- and full-ice games varies by program and region. Body checking is prohibited for kids 12 and under. Proper body checking techniques—like how to safely take a hit—will be taught before it is allowed in Bantam games. Currently, the girls’ game doesn’t allow body checking.

Understand the Calendar

Hockey season is a misnomer. It’s always hockey season. Most youth hockey programs start organizing teams in the early fall depending on age with games running from October to March. Spring hockey starts in late March and summer leagues in June. You’ll want to reach out to your rink regarding their team schedule at the start of the school year to make sure your kid is registered on time. Older players will actually have tryouts in August before school starts.

Check Your Bank Account

There is no limit to the amount of time and money one can spend on youth hockey. Recreational teams typically will set you back at least $1,000 per season. The older and more competitive teams will start at $2,200. Gear is up and down but expect to spend at least $250 a year on new skates. Another way you can drain your bank account is with private coaching. Private coaching can start at $50 an hour but most coaches prefer a long-term relationship, which can cost as much as the team fees for a season. Private coaching is very common in Colorado, and every rink can connect families with small-group development. This type of instruction isn’t just for the top-tier players; our son played on a recreational team for years and benefitted from the extra ice time and attention from his private coaches.

Be Prepared for Competition

Youth hockey teams generally carry a team roster of 18 to 22 kids. Limited ice time and bench space means that kids as young as 11 or 12 might find themselves cut from their programs. These factors will vary from year to year depending on interest, but as kids get older they may need to move to different programs to continue playing. Most clubs offer a choice between a more competitive (and expensive) travel team, and a more wallet-friendly recreational program with less ice time.

Don’t Be That Parent

As with any youth sport, parents have a huge impact on the kids’ experience. Because youth hockey isn’t as popular as, say, soccer, you will most likely be exposed to families outside of your neighborhood or kid’s school. This is a good thing. A real benefit of kids sports is the exposure you get to families you might never otherwise meet. But a word of advice: If you’re a new hockey parent in the stands, don’t be a jerk: Never cheer when kids get hit; don’t ever bang on the glass; and never criticize the goalie.

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