SAINT PAUL, Minn. – Five-year-old Olivia scooted off the ice at TRIA slowly, but confidently. A toothless grin beneath a full cage, she looked every bit a hockey player.
Olivia, whose parents are from South Korea and now reside in St. Paul, skated for the first time just two weeks ago at the Hockey is for Me program. Now, three weeks in, she only gets off the ice for a quick sip of water, or to help get some of her friends on the sheet with her.
“It’s fun,” said Olivia, who helped get 5-year-old Oliver on the ice with her after a quick break. “I like being with my friends. I like hockey a 10 (out of 10).”
The Minnesota Wild’s Hockey is for Me, a no-cost initiative, is in its second year under the Little Wild umbrella. Following a COVID-19 delay, the inaugural year last summer saw more than 120 kids between the ages of 5 and 9 take to the ice from underrepresented communities around the Twin Cities in a four-week learn-to-skate program. From there, spots are allocated for the Hockey is for Me participants that want to move on into Little Wild.
This year, roughly 60 families are participating in the weekly learn-to-skate sessions at TRIA.
“We’re the State of Hockey, right?” said Wild President Matt Majka, who laced up his skates for some circles with a number of kids. “But there’s always room for growth. There’s always a chance for hockey to grow in various other new directions. And that’s what this is about.
“The people that have the means and the interests are probably playing the game, and we’ve got tons of those, but people that don’t have those doors open to them and that are still wondering about the sport may be intrigued about it from a distance. That’s what this is about. And I think it’s really cool that in a sport, in a state like Minnesota where hockey is seemingly in every nook and cranny, we’re finding new communities to introduce the game to.”
According to Minnesota Hockey, 86 percent of players in Minnesota who are 8-years-old and under, are white.
Meredith Lang has long represented that minority 14 percent. A former high school hockey player turned hockey mom to daughters Aubrey and Mia, Lang has continued to stay involved in the game she loves. She helped co-found The Hockey Ninas, a program designed for BIPOC girls who want to play hockey, which has now grown into Minnesota Unbounded, an organization of more than 50 BIPOC players.
Her hope is to see the same growth for other BIPOC players interested at the youngest levels, beginning with Hockey is for Me.
“So much of our diversity and inclusion efforts is by word of mouth,” said Lang, a finalist for this year’s NHL Willie O’Ree award. “We have families who participated in the Hockey is for Me program last year and loved it so much and told their friends about it. At zero cost, it’s a no brainer. The Hockey is for Me program is almost like a ‘try it before you buy it’ type of thing. I love seeing how excited the parents are when they get here, and the kids, who know they are going to fall but they have just this bravery even when they are scared to get on the ice and learn something. And then to watch them grow from not being able to skate to moving around the ice and, hopefully, eventually playing for their association, it’s just so amazing.”
The wonderment and need for more programs like this was none more apparent than through kids like Olivia and Oliver. While Olivia was eager to be on the ice, Oliver, who lives in Stillwater, was a bit more gun shy. After some coaxing from mom, and Olivia proudly stating that Oliver is her favorite hockey player, the two stepped on the ice together with former Edina player now coach Anthony Walsh.
“It’s nice to be in an environment with other kids his age and to have this opportunity,” said Oliver’s mom, Ashley, whose husband played hockey growing up. “We all hear how expensive it is to play, and it’s something he wants to explore, so we’re grateful for this opportunity.”
Kalli Funk, coordinator of community relations and hockey partnerships for the Wild, said just making the opportunity available is the first step towards growing and making hockey more inclusive.
“Right now we see a low percentage of kids of color in the game of hockey, especially at the lower age groups,” she said. “As they grow up, you start to see even less and less. So what we’re trying to do is to get more kids involved in the game, even at the lower levels, and help them continue their progress up. Right now it’s the learn-to-skate program, and then the Little Wild. From there we introduce them to their youth associations and make sure they’re making the right connections to continue to play and foster a love for hockey.”
A love that Olivia and Oliver have just begun; a love that will help the game of hockey continue to grow.
“To have our sport embraced by people of color and minority communities is important for our future,” said Majka. “I just hope they’ll want to come back and play.”