Flash back to a younger version of me. A late-80's kid who was kind of quiet, loved his pop music, and owned a tragic amount of parachute pants (in neon colors nonetheless). The first time I stepped foot on any type of ice surface there were no skates aboard my feet, no helmet on my head, and not a stick in sight. No, my first on-ice experience was in tennis shoes and armed with a long-handled broom. Broom hockey, a popular pastime for youngsters where ice and ice hockey are foreign words, birthed my introduction into hockey obsessiveness.
In 2011, the same type of game is played in Oklahoma with the support of its AHL hockey team.
In an attempt to further connect with the community, and grow the sport of hockey within the state, the Oklahoma City Barons have partnered with local schools to bring all that is good about hockey to kids who have never heard the words "five minute major" or "crosschecking."
"What we are trying to do is grow hockey at a grassroots level," says Barons Director of Communications, Josh Evans. "We don't have the resources to put 30 kids in pads, gloves, and helmets, so we took the game to them in a simple way." And by simple he means simple. Small sticks, round plastic ball, and a gym floor are the tools of the floor hockey trade. "We are indeed doing some branding for the Barons, but we realize that the success of hockey in Oklahoma continues to be through kids," says Evans.
As the end of the Barons inaugural season grew closer, an intelligent member of the season ticket advisory board mentioned seeing kids play floor hockey in Dallas, and thought the idea would be successful in Oklahoma City. The idea was birthed as a way to bring hockey to the attention of young people. "Right now we are introducing floor hockey to as many summer programs as possible," mentions Evans, "This allows us to to stay in touch with school leaders over the summer, then once the schoolyear starts we now have a vehicle to communicate to local schools that, 'Yes, the Barons can help in your physical education program.'"
The program, still in the very early stages, began in early June at the downtown YMCA location. "By the end of the summer we will have been involved with three of the seven YMCA's throughout the metro area," states Evans, "In addition, we have been to Oklahoma City Community College, have recently begun a relationship with Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation, as well as several Tinker Air Force Base locations"
As the floor hockey initiative continues throughout the city's summer months, look for the newly-minted Barons players to join in. "Not everyone (Barons players) are comfortable with sitting down and reading a book to an audience of kids, but I'd imagine that all of them would be in favor of talking a little hockey, and then jumping out and playing with the kids," says Josh Evans. This connection, between player, child, and game, is a key aspect of why this program has been met with great excitement, and reveals its potential come hockey season.
However, don't assume that it's just child's play. "We have been discussing ways of applying this concept to adults," laments Evans, "Why not approach a company, who has access to a gym, and a allow them access to players, equipment, fundamental training, and then let them play. There are many that might be on the fence about purchasing a ticket, coming to a game, and enjoying themselves - this might be the introduction they need."
The sight of Oklahoma kids running in sandals across a gym floor, chopping away at anything that might look like a ball or a puck is quite a rare thing. But the enjoyment, celebration, and excitement displayed by these middle schoolers is evident. (note: they already know how to celebrate, hockey stick overhead)
The Barons organization continues the slow and steady process of introducing itself to an intelligent sports community that needs a nudge towards understanding (and loving) the game of hockey. Yes, this is a ticket selling promotion, but at the heart of the matter lies a higher goal; that the young and the young at heart grow to love hockey.