Kitchener - We tend to think of a childhood spent playing hockey as quintessentially Canadian. However, millions of kids never get the opportunity to even try out Canada's game.
A 2011 study by Vision Critical found that one in three Canadian families cannot afford to put their kids in organized sports. Another study published last month by Canadian Scholarship Trust Consultants Inc. called Beyond the Blueline revealed that more and more Canadian parents are going into debt to enrol their kids in extracurricular activities.
On Nov. 28, the Kitchener Minor Hockey Association's Give it a Try Day gave a group of kids who have never had the opportunity to play organized hockey a chance to sample the game that's so quintessentially Canadian.
The Give it a Try program, run early on a Saturday morning, teamed nine kids, ranging in age from seven to 19, with players on the Triple A minor midget Kitchener Jr. Rangers for a fun introduction to hockey.
"It was a fantastic time for everyone," said Rolland Cyr, KMHA general manager. "Seeing the kids really enjoy themselves and get an opportunity that they may not have had otherwise. I know there were a couple of volunteers in tears because they were so excited to see these kids have such a great time."
When the participants arrived at the rink, most weren't sure how to even put on their equipment. For many of them, it was their first time wearing skates and holding a stick. But according to Cyr and Dean DeSilva, head coach of the Jr. Rangers, it was amazing how quickly they took to the game.
Two of the younger participants who had never skated before were taking laps of the ice without any help after about 20 minutes. Another participant really took to playing defence and was getting a couple Jr. Rangers to teach him to take a slap shot. Another decided he was a goalie, "he'd say, 'Not in my house!' every time he stopped a shot," said DeSilva.
The Jr. Rangers gave informal lessons on skating, shooting, stick handling, and of course, celebrating goals.
"(One participant) would skate as fast a he could and do a Superman dive between the blue lines and our guys would be there giving him high fives," said DeSilva. "Just the look on these kids' faces. The fun that they had was absolutely amazing."
The program's participants weren't the only ones beaming from ear to ear.
"The whole time I just had a big smile on my face," said Jr. Rangers captain Luke Bignell. "Seeing the kids have their first time on skates and celebrating after goals, it was great. "
"It really made us think of how lucky we are," added Jr. Rangers forward Gianfranco Commisso. "You see those kids, and most of them were only a few years younger than us, and it's tough to see that they're just playing for the first time and we've been so lucky to have that opportunity our lives."
DeSilva initially asked his team for two or three volunteers to help out with the program. He ended up with eight — Bignell and Commisso were joined by teammates Ben Demoe, Jackson Dewar, Eastan Eckert, Addison Macey and Brandon Romany and trainer Jason Babcock.
Afterwards, the players were so impacted by the experience, they decided to donate the money they had planned on using for a team secret Santa exchange to buy gifts for a needy family instead.
"That's the biggest thank you or the biggest reward we could ever get out of coaching. Seeing these young men become better people in the community," said DeSilva. "The participants may have learned some hockey skills, but our hockey players certainly came away with a tremendous life lesson."
Cyr was touched by the generosity of the Jr. Rangers, who took time out of their critical Ontario Hockey League draft year to help out, and was thrilled to see them show the program's participants that even at the most elite levels hockey can still be about fun.
Following their first exposure to hockey, Cyr hopes the participants in this Give it a Try Day will stay involved in the game. And thanks to programs like Donna's Kids, which provides financial assistance to families who can't afford to enrol their children in hockey, that's a distinct possibility, regardless of their situation.
"Hockey in Canada means more than just team, it means family," said Cyr. "We do our best to share that sense of community.
"Sharing some of that with the kids in the program, I know it sounds silly to say they can figure that out in an hour, but they can. They got it from the kids they were on the ice with right away."
On Jan. 17, the KMHA will celebrate Girls Hockey Day by running a Give it a Try Day for young girls, which the organization has done for the past three years. While there aren't currently plans to run another Give it a Try Day like the one in late November, Cyr said there's definite interest in planning another one.