Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine

 

Ice Time
Winter means hockey for
many kids in central Missouri

by Jeff Joiner

The 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.

Jefferson City 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.

The Jefferson 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."

Wait 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 Abrams.

Abrams helped 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.

"The national 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 on youngsters.

Abrams 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.

Matthew plays 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."

The Jefferson 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."

The Jefferson 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."

On 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."

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