RALEIGH Twenty years after bringing the NHL to North Carolina, the Carolina Hurricanes continue to cultivate grassroots hockey fandom in several ways. And there’s no better way to maintain and sustain a growing fanbase than by hooking the younger generation.Enter youth hockey and the First Goal program.The program, in its second year across all 30 NHL cities, gives newcomers ages 4 to 8 a complete set of hockey gear, seven on-ice training sessions and two tickets to a 2017-18 Hurricanes game for just $97.Last year 253 area kids signed up and participated, and Shane Willis the team’s youth and amateur hockey coordinator since 2011 and a former Hurricanes player said it was so successful they’ve nearly tripled the space available.”It’s really gone off the charts,” Willis said. “We announced [May 1], and at all the rinks except Garner we’ve doubled capacity. We’ve now brought in Hillsborough, Greensboro, Charlotte and Fort Bragg to try to expand to. We’re shooting for 650 and as of Day 2 we were already at 480.”Nine rinks across the state are part of the program, with on-ice sessions starting in mid-July and running until the end of August. Dates for the Charlotte sessions are yet to be determined.As of early this week all of the Triangle locations (Cary, Garner, Hillsborough, two in Raleigh, and Wake Forest) had sold out, but the program’s sites in Charlotte, Fort Bragg and Greensboro still had space available.Willis said First Goal addresses the main concern parents have to consider when getting their kids involved in youth hockey cost.”So at $97 to fully outfit your son or daughter in equipment and then get those training sessions is very key,” Willis said. “And then we’re moving them into the next step programs, whether it be Learn To Skate or Learn To Play 1 or Learn To Play 2. We had a really good retention rate.”Tom Edwards’ son Owen, now 9, was a part of the First Goal program last year in Wake Forest, and he has progressed from only being on skates a few times to now being ready to join a team.”It kind of opened the door enough that it allowed him and us to be able to make the decision of whether it would be something he’d be interested in or not,” Edwards said.The NHL and the NHL Players Association partnered with CCM Hockey to outfit the players. Enrollees in the First Goal program receive a helmet, shoulder, elbow and shin pads, gloves, hockey pants and socks, skates, a jersey, equipment bag and a stick, all in Carolina Hurricanes’ colors.The free gear the $97 fee covers the ice time and other associated costs draws in families who maybe wouldn’t otherwise try hockey.”It’s not like, say, basketball where you just kind of show up,” Edwards said. “Or baseball you just kind of bring a glove and maybe a pair of cleats and work from there. Ice hockey is a completely different thing where it is a major investment just to get the opportunity to get out on to the ice.”North Carolina youth hockey numbers (18 and under) are on the rise, more than quadrupling to nearly 7,000 since the Hurricanes moved to the state in 1997, according to numbers provided by USA Hockey. Participation has grown 9 percent in the last five years under Willis’ watch.And the target audience of the First Goal program players 8 and under is growing even more rapidly. In the past five seasons, Mite players (currently those born in 2008-2010) have increased by 31 percent, and are up 18 percent this year. More than 300 girls now play youth hockey in N.C., a 39 percent increase since 2012-13.Willis said all those numbers will continue to climb with families like the Edwardses going from First Goal to Learn to Skate and play lessons and into house league play.”The main thing is you’re creating that fan base, the future fan that wants to be Jeff Skinner or who wants to be Sebastian Aho,” Willis said.
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