For anxious parents, a chance to try hockey for free

WASHINGTON — It’s one day, it’s free and it just might become a passion.

USA Hockey’s annual “Try Hockey for Free” day is Saturday at most local rinks. For boys and girls between the ages of four and nine, it is an opportunity to be introduced to hockey before parents make a financial commitment to equipment and ice time.

“We loan the equipment; we just ask that kids come wearing sweatpants,” says Nelson Burton, who runs his Metro Maple Leafs program out of the Piney Orchard Ice Arena, in Odenton, Maryland. “It doesn’t matter if a kid has never been on skates. When you a put a stick in their hand they are less likely to fall. It doesn’t take long for them to get going.”

Burton speaks from experience. When my son Pierce was 10 years old, he told me he wanted to try hockey. My initial thought was, “Why doesn’t he try something easy like sky diving?”  At that age, I thought it was too late for Pierce to start hockey, and he would be too far behind the kids who started skating shortly after — or maybe before — they could walk.

The memory of the call to Burton back in 2010 is vivid. I timidly explained that my son wanted to try hockey, to which Burton asked, “Can he skate?” Even more sheepishly, I said, “A little.” I thought that would be the end of the call. Instead Burton told me to bring Pierce to one of his “give it a shot” sessions.

On borrowed equipment, including skates, Pierce took the plunge into hockey — literally. There were more than a few dives and falls early in his youth hockey career, but after each fall, Pierce would get up, and it seemed his smile grew wider and he stood even taller.

The one “give it a shot session” with Burton’s Metro Maple Leafs led to a happy lifestyle. Pierce continued to get better. I became a licensed USA Hockey youth coach (Level Two, I will have you know), but of more importance is the impact that day, and the game of hockey, have had on Pierce.

With the Metro Maple Leafs, Pierce played on travel teams, and this past spring played for the Maryland Machine A/AA tournament team. He also plays for his high school, Archbishop Spalding, and now volunteers as a coach at the same “give it a shot” sessions where he began his hockey journey.

Hockey is now Pierce’s passion, and it has carried over into other areas of his life. The discipline and commitment he applies to playing hockey shows up in everything from success at school to how he watches his diet.

“Try Hockey for Free” day is USA Hockey’s way of making what could be an intimidating sport more inviting to try. Once on the ice, boys and girls will make their own decisions. Hockey might become their favorite sport; it may become something fun to do every now and then, or they could decide it is not for them. Regardless, USA Hockey wants kids to have a chance to make the choice.

“The hardest part is just getting online and registering,” Burton pointed out. “Once you get here, we size you for equipment and give you a stick, and the next thing you know, you are on the ice. It is amazing how quickly kids, younger kids especially, will pick it up. They have never been on a pair of skates. You put a stick in their hand and they are gone.”

To participate in USA Hockey’s Try Hockey for Free Day, register online and find a rink near you at

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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