In Ely, hockey practice starts an hour and 15 minutes after school ends for the day.
But step inside Ely Ice Arena, and it’s already bustling with dozens of kids. Some are wearing their gear — perfecting their stickhandling or playing a game of pick-up hockey. Others are gathered in the warming house doing their homework.
The hour of open hockey allows time for kids from neighboring communities of Babbitt and Tower to travel to practice. It’s a simple way for kids of all ages to bond with their teammates, and it’s open to anyone who wants to join.
“It’s become this really tight-knit community that people are excited to be a part of,” said Ely Youth Hockey Association President, Bill Forsberg.
The energy and camaraderie is also encouraging a new wave of hockey players to lace their skates.
“It’s huge,” Forsberg said. “It’s not just our program kids — it’s other kids that want to come out and skate. I think that’s drawing some excitement, which is helping to build our Learn to Skate and Mite programs. We’re seeing more kids here than we have in years.”
Ely may be a small community, but it’s doing its part in growing the Ely Youth Hockey Association to new heights.
“We have dedicated coaches that really focus on player development,” Forsberg said. “They aren’t afraid to stop a drill if a few kids haven’t got the technique right. Regardless of skill or athleticism, we’re seeing kids now on our Peewee team — basically the entire roster can skate, and skate well.”
Participants are also going above and beyond through the association’s “Rink Rat” program, which encourages kids to work on their hockey skills outside of scheduled practices and games.
Once they log more than 40 hours of extra practice time, they receive a special shirt and are recognized at an awards ceremony at the end of the season. More than half of all registered players are recognized each year.
That’s a tribute to coaches not only focusing on proper technique and development, but also fostering a joy of playing the game.
“Coaching is a big key to our success,” Forsberg said. “Every single one of them is extremely committed. Our Learn to Skate coach is always coming up with ideas of how we can attract new skaters, and they’re also just teaching kids to learn to skate and have fun out there on the ice. All of our coaches place a big focus on making sure everyone is not only a better hockey player, but also a good sportsman. We want them to be respectful players that are willing to listen and be coachable — be respectful to coaches, parents, to the game and to the arena. I think there’s a lot of pride in that.”
Home Ice: Ely Ice Arena
President: Bill Forsberg
2019-20 Registration Numbers: 80
Forsberg said he is grateful to have volunteers that pour their hearts into the Ely Youth Hockey Association.
“As far as volunteer support, I can’t say enough about the small town we have and how hard everybody works to pull things off,” Forsberg. “Being this small and having parents, coaches and everyone getting excited and positive and buying into what we’ve been doing — it’s very exciting.”
Not even a last-minute game could have stopped this devoted community from rallying together to ensure every last detail was taken care of.
“All of a sudden we had referees and we had concessions — all these things came together in a matter of hours and we pulled off a game,” Forsberg said. “It’s just people pulling together. They’re willing to step up to do whatever it takes. We’re really blessed.”
The Ely Youth Hockey Association is pleased to offer programs and events throughout the year. From creating a Fourth of July parade float, sending a team to the Minnesota Wild Mite Jamboree and even adding a professional goalie coach—the association isn’t letting its size limit opportunities for kids.
“For a small town, we are trying to think big and give these kids all the same opportunities as large organizations,” Forsberg said.
Ely has also started hosting its own Mite jamboree called The Howler, and it’s been a hit with players and parents alike. Started with only four teams, The Howler is now maxed out at 16 teams.
These activities and opportunities have helped fuel growth and breed excitement for the association.
“Our retention is high and we’re seeing a good base and foundation for the future,” Forsberg said. “These last several years of hard work have been producing a lot of success and there are so many good things going on. We’re really on the cusp of making things happen and we’re starting to get high caliber players moving throughout the program. There’s a lot of excitement over the future.”