There’s been a little bit more blue and gold around Niagara University’s Dwyer Arena in recent weeks.
That’s because the Niagara Junior Purple Eagles were chosen as one of the local youth hockey organizations to partner with the Buffalo Sabres, the NHL and its players association to launch the leaguewide “Learn to Play” initiative.
The eight-week program, aimed at boys and girls 4 to 8 years old who are first-time participants, was developed to offer more families a chance to join the hockey community and experience the potential benefits of being involved in the sport.
For a $100 participation fee to offset ice and coaching expenses, the kids have received free head-to-toe equipment (a minimum $400 value) and an hour of certified instruction per week led by Sabres alumni Patrick Kaleta and Darryl Shannon.
“To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect at first,” said Marc Catanzaro, the instructional/coaching director for the Niagara Junior Purple Eagles. “However, the more we met with the Sabres’ representatives, the more excited we got.
“With the offer of free equipment, Sabres alumni coaches and also representatives from the Buffalo Beauts and Niagara University’s club team, it has more than exceeded our expectations.”
Catanzaro was first contacted by the Sabres last season to see if the NJPE would be interested in being involved in the program. After answering with a resounding yes, the real planning started over the summer when the NHL season was complete.
Kaleta was officially hired by the Sabres on Nov. 17 as the Youth Hockey Ambassador to implement and manage the Learn to Play program, and the Junior Purple Eagles opened their registration Nov. 30.
The initial response was overwhelming. The original Thursday evening session, with about 30 spots available, filled up within two days. It filled up so quickly that Catanzaro added a Saturday session for another 30 kids.
Once registration was complete, the participants got the chance to go on a shopping spree.
They went to Pure Hockey just before Christmas to be fitted for their equipment and left the same day with a hockey bag full of customized gear.
From the jersey to the pants, to even everything you can’t see like the shoulder pads and shin guards, every piece has a Sabres logo on it.
The players took part in their opening session Jan. 5 and have been reveling in the fact that they’re on the ice wearing the same logo Kaleta and Shannon wore during their playing days in Buffalo.
“Just having the former NHL players on the ice makes it an experience they look forward to.” Catanzaro said. “Many may not even recognize them without their equipment, but when their parents tell them their eyes light up and they have sudden bursts of energy.
“It’s the idea that they are sharing the ice with a professional player. How many kids can say that?”
When it comes to the on-ice training, the Junior Purple Eagles since 2011 have followed the American Development Model, USA Hockey’s nationwide player-development guidelines for youth hockey associations.
What Catanzaro, lead coach Rob Kopf, who Catanzaro said has been instrumental to the success and efficiency of the program, and other NJPE coaches do is have players 8 years old and younger participate in practices that are based on stations rather than having one team at one end of the ice and another team at the opposite end. There are often multiple skill stations set up across the rink, and the kids rotate through the stations to allow for exposure to all the coaches and players on the ice.
It’s essentially a blueprint for training boys and girls beginning with their first steps on the ice. It places an emphasis on long-term athletic and skill development principles while also making sure the kids are engaged and having fun at the same time.
The key term for Catanzaro is “athlete,” and not just “hockey player.” He’s an advocate for not specializing kids in one sport at an early age.
“In my opinion, with some players, it’s similar to when a kid gets a new toy,” Catanzaro said. “They will play with it every day, and then they get bored. They want a change. We pride ourselves on differentiated instruction.”
While the partnership with the Sabres has been a new venture, beginner programs aren’t totally foreign to NJPE. Catanzaro is also heavily involved with Niagara’s own instructional “Learn to Skate” program.
That’s a longer 24-week session designed to accommodate beginner youth hockey players of all ages. While the cost is higher, players are invited to try the first four weeks for free. And a mere $25 fee will secure equipment for the whole season. It’s believed to be the only equipment loan program in the area.
In addition to that, NJPE also continues to host a “Try Hockey for Free Day.”
All of these programs are part of the overarching initiative to give more people more opportunities to get involved in a sport that often costs too much for kids to ever have a chance to try it.
Even though Catanzaro has been involved with NJPE for the past 9 years, it doesn’t matter to him whether the kids who benefit from these instructional programs continue on with the Purple Eagles, join another local travel program or decide hockey isn’t for them.
These programs reach out to everybody. It’s something that Catanzaro has always supported.
“What makes the sport so tough for kids is the cost,” he said. “They just can’t afford it.
“The equipment rental program as well as the NHLPA’s free equipment offer definitely takes some of the financial burden off the parents. It also makes it affordable to anyone wishing to get involved in a sport that was considered too expensive in the past. This is a great opportunity for the many inner-city kids that may not otherwise have the option.”