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A Warm Welcome

01/31/2020, 10:00am CST
By Steve Mann

Minnesota Hockey’s Family Mentor Program is embracing newcomers, easing anxieties and building stronger communities

A lot of us have been there—new to a sport and clueless about seemingly simple tasks like interpreting waiver forms, managing time and travel commitments or getting our own kid’s equipment on. We’ve asked: why is my 6-year-old kicking a soccer ball around the ice? And … what the heck is DIBS?

Families that are new to youth hockey may face their fair share of bumpy ice as they navigate their way through these tasks and others. For those lacking a hockey background or friends in the association to turn to, even the smallest to-do can become overwhelming.

They may not be aware there’s a relatively new and growing Minnesota Hockey program designed specifically to help and enhance their experience.

Minnesota Hockey’s Family Mentor Program was established in late 2018 to provide new parents and players a personalized introduction to the sport and their local youth hockey association. It’s a simple concept: the program encourages veteran hockey families to partner with the rookies and show them the ropes, easing concerns and creating a safe, friendly environment for them to ask questions and feel connected and included.

“Anything we can do to help some families with challenges, being unfamiliar with the sport or intimidated by it, we want to help them overcome it,” said Glen Andresen, Minnesota Hockey executive director. “It’s a great way to welcome parents and players into their community association and educate them on the basics of hockey in Minnesota.”

How It Works

Minnesota Hockey families helping each other out isn’t a new concept. Ask any hockey association leader and they’ll have plenty of examples of members volunteering their time and energy to welcome new families with open arms—setting up carpools, offering hand-me-down gear or just answering questions. The Family Mentor Program formalizes these efforts with incentives for participating families.

            Here’s how it works:

  • Associations interested in participating should notify Andresen and Minnesota Hockey to get things started
  • Associations are asked to recruit a minimum of five mentor families and are provided with sponsor incentives to be used for introductory events and get-togethers with new players and parents
  • Established hockey families in local associations serve as volunteer mentors and are paired with first-year families in the association’s Mite/8U program
  • The mentor families will welcome the newcomers to a Learn to Play program or practice by presenting him or her with an association gift and helping them get ready to hit the ice
  • While the established player helps the newcomer on the ice, parents of both players will sit in the stands together to get to know each other and answer questions
  • Mentor families are encouraged to check in with new families over the course of the year to stay connected and help them with anything they might need

Andresen believes formalizing a practice that was already occurring in many places made adopting the program easier for associations, and truly empowers them to customize the program to meet their specific needs.

“We want associations to get creative and have fun with it,” he said.

Making Mentoring a Priority

Holly Tschida wears many different hats on behalf of the Chaska Chanhassen Hockey Association. In her roles leading recruiting and as lower girls’ commissioner, she is well aware of the challenges associations sometimes face in recruiting and retaining players. Tschida quickly saw the Family Mentor Program as a fantastic opportunity.

“I knew this was going to be a hit when 80 percent of our mentor families said ‘I wish we would have had this when we started out,’” Tschida said. “It’s a great way to have relaxed, casual conversation with someone about the sport and get honest answers and just feel like there’s someone approachable to be a point of contact. I remember starting out when my kid was a Mini Mite and I didn’t have that. I want to make sure new families know they have an association family there to help.”

When Tschida helped launch the program with her Board of Director’s support, she aimed to get five mentor families to participate. The response was so positive, she ended up having to turn people away. More than 30 families expressed interest in helping.

“I’m so proud of our established hockey families for stepping up,” Tschida said.

Chaska Chanhassen organized an hour of ice on a Sunday night in November for its on-ice welcome session. Coaches and players—from Mini Mites to Bantams—got to hang out on the ice, play tag and shoot some pucks, while parents took to the stands to talk and share a laugh. New families were given welcome gift bags, including things like water bottles and helmet repair kits. Then everyone gathered together for some hot chocolate. The response was so great, Tschida anticipates the program doubling in size next year.

“We were concerned that the younger kids would be tired and cranky after a long day, but they all said they wanted to skate more and asked when they could get together again,” Tschida said. “The program is still in its early stages, but I can already see some really good matches.”

Growing the Hockey Family

But it’s not just Chaska Chanhassen. Andresen said the Marshall Amateur Hockey Association is participating, offering tutors to help members navigate their association website and an equipment demonstration station at an introductory event. Esko Youth Hockey has also been one of the leading associations offering a helping hand since the program’s inception.

Andresen believes bringing association families together in a fun way can deliver many short- and long-term benefits for both players and parents involved. It can impact the continued growth of the game throughout the State of Hockey.

“In Minnesota we don’t have too much of a problem with getting kids whose parents played involved with the game,” Andresen said. “But we really want outreach to families who don’t have a hockey background. We think they’ll love the sport too.”

More to Come

In year one of the program, without much time to market the details, just five youth hockey associations participated. However, with a full offseason to promote, solidify sponsorships and generate word of mouth, that number has tripled for 2019 and Andresen expects exponential growth in the years ahead.

“We always talk about our community-based model and when you’re playing within your community it means something special,” said Andresen, who estimates around 300 total families are currently involved. “But it doesn’t mean as much if you don’t feel like you’re truly a part of it. It can be particularly intimidating if you don’t have connections going in. The Family Mentor Program lets new families know there’s a way for you to get over that initial hump of anxiety and cultivate some new relationships.”

One thing is clear: hockey’s version of “Minnesota Nice” is flourishing, and the opportunity to introduce new families to the sport in an inclusive way is available for those who want to take advantage of it.

“Our associations want their families to have the best experience possible,” Andresen said. “We’re excited about this first full season and how much the associations have embraced the opportunity.”

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