June 2014 marked a turning point for the Park District of Oak Park Hockey Academy (OPHA) in Illinois.
Renovations were transforming Ridgeland Common Ice Arena from a six-month-per-year rink to a year-round rink. That gave OPHA the opportunity to expand what it offered in its program.
“That’s kind of been the rebirth of our program,” said Kyle Sandine, the aquatic and rink manager. “It’s something the community was maybe a little bit hesitant about, making it year-round with the ice arena, but given the staff that we have now, they’ve done a remarkable job of showing that we’re a quality program and getting people excited about being here. The kids are raving about it. ‘When can I get back on the ice? I wish you guys have more ice.’ The kids love it that much.”
Now that two years have passed, OPHA is thriving along with some assistance from USA Hockey.
OPHA answered USA Hockey’s 2 and 2 Challenge in 2015-16, taking advantage of a program that encourages 8-and-under participation in local associations with a goal of acquiring two new players and retaining two additional players than the previous season’s total. By growing hockey at that age group, programs experience long-term growth as players continue to develop, and the OPHA was one of six programs in Illinois to meet the goals of USA Hockey’s 2 and 2 Challenge during this past season.
“To have kids that are interested, especially at such a young age, shows there’s an appetite in this area for opportunities to be active and try new things,” Sandine said. “To have it start at such a young level, at the 8U level, it really is rewarding to see that we have that type of draw to our program.”
OPHA used the 2 and 2 Challenge to help boost participation with every age. Last season, starting in the fall and running until the spring, the academy totaled over 1,000 participants in four eight-week sessions.
“We’ve seen our program start as kind of a feeder for some of the younger kids,” Sandine said. “We don’t have a lot of older groups this year, but we’re actually offering our second 14U team for the first time ever. We’ve been really fortunate to see our 10U and 12U flourish. At the 8U level, we’ve debated whether to offer two teams or one. Last year, we saw enough interest from that program to say, yes, we’re going to go ahead with two 8U teams and get as many kids into the program as we can. We want to start giving them those tools to be successful later on.”
The academy offers a learn-to-skate/learn-to-play program that focuses on developing the basics of both skating- and hockey-specific skills. Players are split into two groups: Polar Cubs (ages 3 to 5) and Junior Bears (age 6 and up).
OPHA also runs the Polar Bear Hockey League, which allows kids the chance for more game experience. Using a cross-ice format, the kids play 3-on-3, 4-on-4 or 5-on-5, depending on the age group.
OPHA had implemented USA Hockey’s American Development Model prior to Sandine’s arrival in 2014, but now there’s even more emphasis on the model. And beyond hockey, the park district has also implemented ADM principles in other youth sports offerings to enhance fun and skill development across the board.
“The cross-ice games, the small-sided drills and that type of thing, it keeps kids active and they’re not sitting on the sideline waiting for their turn to go,” Sandine said.
Sandine also loves throwing three or four pucks on the ice for five or six kids to use, as opposed to having one player doing a drill while seven others stand around and watch.
“When you’re teaching a class and you get through the nitty gritty, to the kids, a lot of times the forward swivels can get boring,” said Andrew Prost, the academy’s hockey coordinator. “It’s a good idea to mix it up every once in a while with a little obstacle course or small-area game to make them feel like they’re playing the game. A lot of times, getting them from that point of, ‘OK, I’ve never played hockey before,’ to, ‘I’m ready to be on a team,’ is difficult. They want to play the game; they want to get out there and feel like a hockey player. So you’ve got to provide those instances where they kind of feel like it’s a game.”
Sandine believes a big reason for the resurgence of the hockey program in Oak Park is a solid population base – around 53,000 people live in a three-square-mile area – and having the Chicago Blackhawks’ home rink, the United Center, just eight minutes west certainly doesn’t hurt. However, the rink renovation was a major impetus to the academy’s success, along with offering a welcoming program.
“It provides kids the opportunity to try it in a very unintimidating atmosphere,” Sandine said. “Our rink philosophy as a whole is trying to get as much of the community involved as possible. We’re not like other rinks that solely cater to travel teams or high school teams. We have high school teams in the area, but we’re building that bridge between those programs so that we can say, ‘Starting as a 3- or 4-year-old, your end goal could be one of the two high schools that are in our town. You follow this program and you follow the prescribed path and you can get there.’”