Every Monday night during the winter months, the Carolina Hurricanes’ training facility at the Raleigh Ice Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a popular place.
Wake County Boys & Girls Club participants who take part in the Capital City Crew program are on the ice receiving instruction. The kids, who are mostly brand new to hockey, sometimes earn a special treat. Hurricanes players Trevor van Riemsdyk and Haydn Fleury were at practice in early February teaching the sport to the young skaters.
That’s just one of many perks for the inner-city youth who are given the chance to play hockey for the Capital City Crew.
“What we’re trying to do is create a program that provides an opportunity to young men and young women at the Boys Club and Girls Club who normally wouldn’t have the exposure to the great game,” said Capital City Crew Hockey Operations Manager Greg Meluch.
From the Capital City Crew’s inception nine years ago, the program has had a partnership with the Hurricanes, Raleigh Youth Hockey Association and the Wake County Boys & Girls Club. All the kids who play for the program attend the local Boys & Girls Club.
“It’s a great partnership, because they bring something to the table that we desperately need and that we build the foundation around,” said Capital City Crew founder and director John Scott. “I attend their staff meetings a couple of times a year to provide feedback and to take their feedback on how the program’s growing, how we can change it, how we can make it better. It takes a huge weight off our shoulders, because we don’t have to recruit kids.”
Each year prior to the season, Scott determines how many kids the program can service within the budget. Scott will specify how he wants the youth players segmented by gender, how many returning players he’d like back and he’ll request a good balance of younger and older kids.
Capital City Crew’s target age is players ages 8 to 14 years old. However, Scott isn’t going to stop any younger kids who are antsy to try out the sport. Once the kids graduate from the program at 14, some are able to move into a house league or travel team.
This year, the program consists of 85 kids who practice at two rinks. Along with the 40 players who are at the Raleigh Ice Center on Mondays, 45 players lace up their skates at The Factory in Wake Forest on Thursdays.
The kids receive one hour of on-ice training per week followed by a 15- to 20-minute life skills session. It’s a nice mix of learning on and off the ice.
“We wanted to do more than just teach kids how to play the game,” said Capital City Crew Life Skills Manager Michael Kanters. “We wanted to use it as a platform to help young people also develop as people.”
On the ice, the players got through a 12- to 15-week instructional program using skills progressions offered by USA Hockey.
“The progress that they make over the 12- to 15-week program is just amazing,” said Meluch, who is a USA Hockey Level 4-certified coach. “It’s due to the fact that it’s something new for them. I can tell you 95 percent of the young men and young women in our program have never had exposure to ice hockey ever before. The majority have never skated on ice.”
The first six weeks of the course focuses on forward and backward skating, transitions, stickhandling, passing, shooting and balance. The kids are divided into six stations to work on the different skills.
“When they have their individual skills built, then we work on team skills,” Meluch said.
In the last half of the course, the players are divided by age and skill level into teams to play cross-ice 3-on-3, 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 games.
There are anywhere from 12-15 coaches who work each session, so there’s an impressive 3-to-1 player-to-coach ratio.
After the kids’ on-ice session concludes, there’s a brief break for a breather and a life skills component is introduced. Offering more than just hockey in the Capital City Crew program has been something that’s very important to Scott since Day 1.
“It was kind of like the main ingredient that I wasn’t going to do [the program] without it,” Scott said.
Kanters designed a curriculum that teaches a series of skills. There’s always a lesson of the week that hits on an important subject such as setting goals, appreciating differences or leading a healthier lifestyle. The instructors are taught not to present the information to the kids like they are in school because they get enough of that during the day.
“It’s a very light lesson,” Kanters said. “It’s activity-based and you’re trying to connect it with other life domains. You don’t want to come in hard and heavy on life lessons, otherwise they’re going to tune you out. We try to incorporate it with a little bit of snack time if they’re coming off the ice — water and healthy snacks.”
Scott has received plenty of positive feedback that the Capital City Crew is making a difference in the lives of the kids, and in turn, the kids are making a difference in their community.
“The parents and the people at the Boys & Girls Club say, ‘Hey, we’ve noticed a change in behavior with time management skills, in areas of their school work, in areas of being confident,’” Scott said. “Some of these kids come to us and they’re shy about everything, and now we give them a sense of belonging. They’re on a team, they’re in a family; it’s something they look forward to.”
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Mike Knuble, a United States Olympian and four-time U.S. Men’s National Team selection, has continued his involvement with the game through coaching. In addition to serving as an assistant coach for the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, Knuble helps coach the Michigan Nationals’* bantam major and peewee minor teams.
Living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and three kids, Knuble savors his time spent on the bench, which sometimes doubles as family time.
“Both of my boys play. It’s fun to be involved on their teams. I feel like it is my duty and responsibility,” he said of his involvement in youth hockey. “I help kids navigate their young careers. I can teach them things I didn’t know at their age and hope that someday it will click with them.”
Knuble describes hockey as a microcosm of life. Everything he learned through the game he applies to his life today. He learned to deal with adversity, how to work with different personalities and how to use different communication styles depending on the person and the situation.
As a youth hockey coach, he quickly learned that kids aren’t little adults. “Just like you need to tell a kid 100 times to brush their teeth, you need to do the same thing on the ice with a play,” he said.
Some advice he tries to impart on young players is to have fun, but also learn to embrace hard work to become a good player. “It is important to work hard on and off the ice with your team,” said Knuble.
Though he admits that his sons sometimes may wish their dad wasn’t their coach, it’s obvious that the teams Knuble coaches in western Michigan are lucky to have such an accomplished international player as one of their coaches.
*Michigan Nationals will be known as Fox Motors Hockey Club starting next season.
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