Winter means hockey for
many kids in central Missouri
by Jeff Joiner
scene is chaotic and more than a little odd kids on ice in full
hockey gear chasing and kicking at a soccer ball. They slide, fall, jump
up again all the while yelling and laughing. It seems playing soccer on
ice is fun.
"These guys think
they're having fun," says Doug Abrams with a sly grin that suggests he's
slipping one by this group of 9- and 10-year- olds that make up his hockey
team. "They're really working on their skating and footwork," Abrams says.
The odd exercise
is part of a weekly practice for the Squirt team Abrams coaches as part
of the Jefferson City youth hockey program. Youth hockey divisions are
based on age and named the Mites, Squirts, Pee Wees, Bantams and Midgets.
There is also a high school squad.
has Missouri's only ice rink outside of St. Louis, Kansas City, Cape Girardeau
and St. Joseph. And in a town crazy about sports, Jefferson City puts
together 10 hockey teams with more than 160 kids age 6 through 18 playing.
There are so many
kids in central Missouri wanting to play hockey that each age division
is also split into two teams based on experience. Abrams coaches the Squirt
I squad while another group makes up the Squirt II team.
City hockey program is unique among many youth sports programs across
the country. The program places every child who wants to play on a team
and no one sits the bench.
"There are a lot
of programs that turn kids away," says Abrams. "In 12 years we've never
'wait listed' a youngster."
listing means placement on a waiting list. Usually youth hockey programs
decide how many teams an ice rink can support allowing for games and practice
time. That determines how many kids play. Try outs are held and often
only the top players make teams.
It's a challenge
to schedule ice time for practice and games, but the Jefferson City program
manages, says Phil Stiles with the Parks and Recreation Department which
operates the ice rink and organizes teams along with the Jefferson City
Youth Hockey Club. "Scheduling can get a little tight but we've been fortunate
to have some creative minds that are able to manage and make the best
use of what ice time they have."
Abrams and Stiles
have gone so far as to put teams together the night before the season
began to accommodate kids wanting to play. That's important to Abrams,
even more important than winning.
"There are certain
prices in youth sports that you ought not pay to win a game you
don't bench kids; you don't yell at kids; you don't browbeat kids," says
start the Jefferson City youth hockey program in 1989 when he moved to
Columbia from New York. He played hockey growing up on Long Island and
played goalie for Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And he's coached
the sport for 32 years.
For Abrams the
sport is about having fun. Jefferson City is not going to produce National
Hockey League players, Abrams says. "No Missouri youngster has made it
to the NHL. ThatÕs not what youth sports is about."
Abrams cites the
number of kids who return to play year after year as evidence that the
Jefferson City program is on to something.
statistics are atrocious. Almost 50 percent of American youngsters play
at least one youth sport every year, but 70 percent of them quit by the
time they're 13, and 90 percent quit by the time they're 15," says Abrams.
By contrast 85
percent of the kids who play hockey in Jefferson City return.
Abrams knows the
statistics. As a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law
he specializes in family law and has written about the impact of sports
insists that pressure to win has taken much of the fun out of playing
sports for children. "Here, we're not out to win the Stanley Cup. We're
out to let youngsters play."
"It's been a
wonderful thing for our son," says Jefferson City attorney Ed Clausen
whose son, Matthew, plays on Abrams' Squirt I team.
baseball and football, but hockey is his favorite sport. "He has more
enthusiasm for this than probably any other sport. A lot of it has to
with the coaching. The
kids are naturally competitive and the coaches are competitive but they
don't climb on top of the kids and aggressively push them. I think my
son responds to that."
City hockey program has 19 coaches including parents and other adults
with hockey experience as well as players from the high school team.
One of Abrams'
assistants is Mark Mudd of Fulton who has two sons playing hockey. His
youngest son, Barry, has been skating with his dad since he was 3. For
him the speed of the game makes it fun.
"I like skating
and how fast we go," says Barry. "I like scoring, too. I've got one goal
this year. I skated down the ice, wrapped around the goal and put it in!"
Despite the laid
back approach of the Jefferson City program its teams are competitive.
All of the Jefferson
City teams, except for the high school squad, play in the Missouri Amateur
Hockey League made up of clubs in St. Louis and western Illinois. The
high schoolers play in the Kansas City Metro League. This
year AbramsÕ team was undefeated until just recently, and other Jefferson
City teams can also brag about winning records against St. Louis clubs.
It wasn't always
like that, says Abrams, who has coached hockey in Jefferson City for 12
years. The Jefferson City teams began playing games in 1991 and at first
it was rough going. "If we scored one goal a month it was a moral victory.
We had teams that played 15 games and scored four goals."
City Capitals, the name for all the age division teams, attract players
from as far away as Camdenton, the Lake of the Ozarks, Fulton and Columbia.
And at every game, whether in Jefferson City, Kansas City or St. Louis,
the parents are there cheering for their teams.
"It's the best
spectator sport. It's so fast but you can see everything," says Clausen.
"You can see the kids when they're doing things right, when they're passing
well; you can see things develop. It's exciting."
a recent Saturday at the Jefferson City ice rink the Squirt I team hosted
Fairview Heights, Ill. The Capitals quickly fell behind and lost their
first game of the season 4-2.
"All winning streaks
come to an end guys," Abrams tells the kids in the locker room after the
game. "What do you say we start another winning streak tomorrow?"
The kids yell
in agreement. "That's the great thing about coaching youngsters. They
lose and go on. They're on to something else."