For some kids, it was a brand new experience. Picking up a hockey stick, much less playing with it in a school gym, isn’t something a lot of Prince George’s County, Maryland, kids who live inside the Beltway get to do very often.
That’s changing now, though.
For more than a decade, the Washington Capitals have been bringing hockey to kids around the D.C. region through their Capitals Hockey School program. On Thursday, the team celebrated a big milestone with an expansion into Prince George’s County. By the end of the month, when every elementary, middle and charter school in the county gets its gear, hockey sticks will have gotten into the hands of more than a million students around the D.C. area.
“The program is now in over 1,600 schools, which is a massive success in terms of growing the game and providing access to the sport,” said Peter Robinson, director of Youth Hockey Development for the Capitals.
Since 2014, the NHL has gotten involved and helped teams around the league fund similar programs. Over the years, about $3.5 million has been invested in area youth hockey programs such as this one.
For students at Capitol Heights Elementary, it was a chance to learn about hockey in gym class, playing with plastic sticks and rubber balls set up in the gym. The belief is that being able to play not just on ice, but the street, gym floor or anywhere else provides ample opportunity to connect with kids wherever they are.
“We’re really looking at how do we grow both diversity of the forms of the sport, different ways to play the game, and then diversity of people playing the game as well,” Robinson said.
On hand for the debut of the program in Prince George’s County was Matt Herr, who was drafted by the Capitols in 1994 and played 52 games with the team before bouncing around with other NHL organizations. Since retiring, he’s been involved as a youth coach, and was also a high school teacher before becoming the NHL’s senior director of Youth Hockey and Industry Growth.
“To get these kids to be able to come out and have their stick in their hand, the coordination they get, the ability to participate in physical activity, those are all important factors in academic development,” Herr said.
But the lessons learned by playing a team sport like hockey apply to other areas of life, too.
“There’s conflict resolution, there’s rules you have to follow,” Herr said. “Once you leave the school, it’s going to pertain to walking down the street and your friends circle that you’re in and overcoming obstacles when you go get a job.”
Herr added, “I’ve learned a lot of what I’ve taken in my jobs or in life from my hockey experiences.”
Capitol Heights Elementary Principal Shawna Berry was excited to be able to expose her students to something that many of them likely had no familiarity with, and also provide another way to learn teamwork, discipline and leadership skills.
“In the grown-up world, you have to be able to work with people, so being able to do that and do it well is a skill they would learn as part of a team, a hockey team,” Berry said. “Hockey is going to be a magnificent outlet for some of our kids.”