The NHL announced at the All-Star break that they were going to expand their Learn to Play program to the entire league. Programs of this sort are not unique to the NHL, but it will now be jointly funded by the NHL, the NHLPA, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. The idea is similar to Hockey Canada’s First Shift program.
"In my estimation, this is one of the best programs the NHL and the NHLPA offer," said David Morehouse, president and CEO of the Penguins. "About 10 years ago, Sidney Crosby came to us and asked how can we make it more affordable for kids to play hockey, I'd like to try to help. So what we did was we went to a couple of our corporate sponsors, at the time, Dick's Sporting Goods and Reebok, now CCM, and together with Sidney we funded a program to provide free hockey equipment for kids in western Pennsylvania. We're in our 10th year, and every year it's over 1,000 kids.
The league-run version of this idea has been operating in eight markets so far, and the decision to expand to the entire league is a good one.
From the Learn to Play site for the Maple Leafs, an explanation of what’s included in the program which is limited to children 4-8 years old:
Free head-to-toe equipment for registered participants
Each participant will receive the following new equipment to call their own, customized by your local NHL team:
Ice Hockey Helmet with a cage
In addition to the equipment provided, we recommend that you purchase a mouth guard, neck guard and athletic supporter.
Upon completion of the Learn to Play program, participants will be able to keep the equipment.
6-8 Weeks of On-Ice Instructions
In addition to the free head-to-toe equipment, participants in the Learn to Play program will also receive 6-8 weeks of age-appropriate instruction in a safe and fun environment. Learn to Play on-ice instruction plans have been developed in collaboration with experts from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada and taught by certified instructors and led by NHL Alumni.
The program provides FREE head-to-toe equipment for your child to keep as they continue exploring youth hockey. However, there is a participation fee associated with the program which offsets ice and coaching expenses. The participation fee may vary by facility and market.
There is a link on the site to sign up to get information on the coming sessions as this program expands, and every team will have its own site to let people sign up for their local programs.
It’s common for people, particularly people who have never paid for a child to play hockey, to think that Canada doesn’t need this sort of program, that hockey is something all kids can do here. That is very much not the case.
One person who has always known that is the All-Star Game MVP, Wayne Simmonds. He runs an event in Scarborough every year to raise funds to help kids with equipment and training needs. He knows hockey isn’t really there for every Canadian, just like Crosby understood that.
It’s great to see the league and their partners investing to grow the game everywhere. The plan is to enroll 30,000 children in the program every year. But it’s not really about trying to find the next Crosby or Simmonds or Auston Matthews. It’s about all the things that children’s sports offer.
Mathieu Schneider, who works for the NHLPA said this:
"And what this program aims to do, and what we hope to do expanding in the future, is to change that culture, make it a fun, positive environment, give the kids a place where they can get great coaching, develop some of the life skills that sports teach you.
"It's not about becoming a great hockey player, it's about becoming a great person, and hockey is a vehicle to help you achieve your goals."