Alexander Hoffer sat patiently as his mom tied his size 8 hockey skates. “Are you excited?” she asked him. “No, not yet, Mom,” the 4-year-old answered, cool and confident.
Wyatt Lawson, also 4, squirmed as his parents squeezed a little helmet onto his head. “Owwww!” he cried.
William Marrinan, 4, had never skated before. “But it’s all he’s been talking about all day,” said his father, Kevin.
Teagan Iddles, who turns 4 in March, was the youngest of the group, but he’s destined to be a standout. His older brother Brayden, 9, plays hockey. And his parents’ first date was to a Bighorns hockey game. “We’ve been here ever since,” Andy, Teagan’s dad, said.
It was the first night of the second session of the Bighorn U8 league. The newest players, called Termites, arrived early to be fitted with equipment — skates, padding, helmets, gloves. It took a good half hour to get them dressed.
After a Zamboni resurfaced the ice at the Helena Ice Arena, the kids — about 60 of them, all 8 and under — spilled onto the ice.
Grady Hatten, 4, took his first step into the slippery, fast-paced world of hockey. He fell immediately.
“Ninety percent of them think they can do it right off the bat,” said Shawn Schroeder, a coach for the Helena Area Youth Hockey’s U8 league. The U8s include the Termites, ages 4 to 6, and Mites, ages 7 and 8.
The Helena Area Youth Hockey program started in the mid-1990s, according to Brad Hornung, a head coach for the Termites and Mites. At first, the program was made up mostly of kids from families who had moved to Montana from elsewhere, Hornung said.
“Montana is not a big hockey state,” Hornung said. “Most of those kids in the program when it started — their dads had grown up in Minnesota or were transplants from Canada.”
Hornung, himself, is a transplant from Canada. He started playing hockey when he was 6 and played competitively until he was 22. Now, Hornung has a 7-year-old son who plays with the Mites. Hornung says he has seen increased interest in the sport in the three years he’s been coaching.
“I’d say it grows between 5 and 10 percent each year,” he said. “All those kids that played in 1993 and 1994 are starting to have kids who want to play.”
Cost of the program is $120 per session and $25 per session to rent gear. Kids are also required to raise $25 through fundraising efforts.
With most of the new Termites already lying on the ice, the first lesson was how to stand up after a fall. Or, for some, to stand up at all.
“We tell them to go slow and take their time,” Schroeder, a Minnesota transplant, said. “You tell them to slowly get up, and if they can stand there, then we’ll take some small steps.”
Hornung said one of the biggest challenges of teaching 4-year-olds to skate is keeping their attention.
“They like to go their own way,” he said. “It’s a balancing act — you want to get them to do it without forcing them to do it and making it a bad experience.”
With the exception of Alexander, all the Termites were on their feet by the end of practice. But Alexander was undeterred. He sat on the ice and watched his teammates. At the end of practice, he crawled off the ice.
“As long as they’re happy — we try to encourage them to learn skating technique and about the puck,” Hornung said. “But if they’re happy, that’s the biggest part.”
Almost a month later, Grady’s mom, Skye, helps him into his hockey gear. The dressing process is a little quicker — about 20 minutes to get him into his skates, padding and helmet.
“He’s loving it,” Skye says. “He eats, breathes and sleeps hockey — that’s what he says.”
Wyatt dances around the locker room as his dad tries to get his gear on him. The helmet goes on without a problem. His dad, Harper, reports that Wyatt has been doing great, for the most part.
“He has moments of lying on the ice in protest,” Harper says. “He’s pretty competitive. We have to remind him that to play hockey, you have to learn how to skate first.”
Teagan’s dad, Andy, says that Teagan is, in fact, following in the footsteps of his older brother. “After the first day, they said, ‘I hate hockey,’ but by the third day, they said, ‘I love hockey,’” Andy says.
William says he played in a tournament on Saturday— the U8 Hockey Jamboree, which involved 18 teams from around the state. “I like bashing guys around,” William says.
“We’ll have to work on that,” his dad, Kevin, says.
After the Zamboni parks, the gate opens and the kids pour out onto the ice.
Alexander takes his position — sitting on the ice next to the wall.
The rest of the beginner Termites, some with the help of metal ice-skating walkers, skate or take small steps around the ice. William has moved up to a more experienced group.
“He just picked it up,” Hornung says. “He’s totally focused on wanting to play hockey.”
After watching for a while, Alexander crawls over to a walker and stands up. It’s the first time since he started, Hornung says later. “I was ecstatic.”
By the end of practice, Alexander is leading his Termite teammates in a round of follow the leader. He is smiling.