In Baton Rouge, where football dominates school athletic programs and the local ice skating rink is open for only the cooler half of the year, a small ice hockey team is trying to get more people involved in a sport that members say is both challenging and rewarding.
On Sunday, the Baton Rouge Blades youth ice hockey team hosted a “Try Hockey for Free” event at Leo’s Iceland, where kids had a chance to learn how to skate, handle a hockey stick and shoot goals. Many wore their bicycle helmets in lieu of hockey gear.
The sport is a novelty in Baton Rouge, but some team parents, many of whom are originally from northern states, think it could catch on. They’re hoping the team will grow and compete more often.
The Blades disbanded about 10 years ago — about the same time the adult minor league Kingfish team left town — and started back up about four years ago, said Matt Moss, the team’s coach. There are about 25 children between the team’s two divisions, which span ages 4 to 15.
“There’s such a passion for sports in Baton Rouge … so I could see families jumping on it,” said Jim Winges, a sports psychologist at LSU whose 5-year-old daughter, Ali, is on the team.
Winges is from Minnesota and grew up around hockey. It’s a true family sport, he said, and parents often play on the ice with their kids. Hockey families tend to believe strongly in “bringing the game to the next generation,” he said.
“It’s a lifetime game,” Winges said. “You can’t play football past a certain age … but I know 70-year-olds in Minnesota who play weekly.”
Hockey can complement other sports like football, Winges said, because it develops lower body strength and hand-eye coordination. Some professional players skate as fast as 45 miles per hour, and keeping an eye on the puck at that speed requires focus, he said.
But unlike football, which is “stop and go,” hockey is fast-paced and doesn’t come to a halt very often, Moss said.
“You have to have balance, speed and agility all at once,” he said.
Many children at Sunday’s event were learning that the hard way. Moss was quick to remind them that “the only way you can learn is falling.”
Children took two approaches to learning how to skate. Some pushed stacks of milk crates for balance, while others did what Winges calls “water skiing” — they held onto a hockey stick as Winges skated backward and pulled them forward.
Sam Redford and his daughter, Ainsley, 6, were practicing skating with a hockey stick. Redford has played on Baton Rouge’s adult hockey league, BRUHA, since 1998, but Ainsley had never tried the sport until Sunday.
Ainsley said she had fun skating but discovered that hockey is much different than her favorite sport, baseball.
“You have to keep the bat up, but you have to keep the stick down while you’re moving,” she said.
Others were practicing making shots and being goalies. Marion Buller, 7, had never played ice hockey before but said she enjoyed its challenges.
“Sometimes the goalie can be really good,” Buller said. Players have to think fast to be able to score, she said.
Every player’s role in the game is important. Blades team member Keaton Parboosingh, 10, said hockey teaches teamwork because everyone must work together to keep control over the puck and make goals.
“A lot of kids like to skate, so taking it up to playing a game and putting a stick in their hand and a puck, they enjoy that,” said Keaton’s mother, Tamara Parboosingh. “It’s the whole bonding and sport of hockey that brings everyone together and they have a good time, and when they start traveling, that builds friendships.”
The Blades practice weekly and play teams in cities such as Lafayette, Shreveport, Dallas and Pensacola, Florida. Parboosingh said they’re hoping to recruit more players at different ages so they can play other organized clubs more often.