Bemidji Youth Hockey receives equipment grant from Minnesota Hockey program, celebrates with 102-player USA Hockey ADM practice

Minnesota Wild mascot Nordy joins Bemidji Youth Hockey players for practice Wednesday at Bemidji Community Arena. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Hockey can be a cost-prohibitive sport for some families.

The cost to get a young player started can be $150 or more for skates, pads, helmets, sticks and other equipment.

Bemidji Youth Hockey eliminated the startup cost for some families this year with help of a grant it received from the Gear Up Minnesota! program administered by Minnesota Hockey.

“The biggest comment I hear is this: ‘Oh we’d love to try hockey but there’s no way we want to try it because it is too expensive,’” Bemidji Youth Hockey president Tracy Pogue said. “We hear it all the time. How many people are not trying hockey because they think the economics are going to kill them?”

The grant funded 24 starter sets of Total Hockey brand youth equipment for 5-8 year olds and was celebrated at Bemidji Community Arena Tuesday Afternoon during an event put on by Bemidji Youth Hockey.

About 300 people attended as 102 youth players took to the ice for a coaching clinic. Bemidji State mascot Bucky and Minnesota Wild mascot Nordy were on hand to help out at practice and pose for photos with the young players.

Bemidji Youth Hockey was one of 24 programs in Minnesota to receive the grant funded primarily by Total Hockey and the Minnesota Wild Foundation.

The intent of Gear Up Minnesota! is to provide local associations with the equipment to attract new players and make the game more accessible. Keeping the game accessible is a goal of Bemidji Youth Hockey and the youngest players in Bemidji Youth Hockey play all of their games at the BCA to eliminate travel costs.

“We take the economics part out of it and make sure they understand there is no travel for the first four or five years,” Pogue said. “Give it a try. If their kids really enjoy it the parents are going to find a way to play for the fifth year.”

Registration is close to ending for the upcoming season of Bemidji Youth Hockey. Pogue said there are 102 mite-level players and 140 non-mite players registered. There are approximately 400 boys and 50 girls involved in Bemidji Youth Hockey for the upcoming year.

Pogue said participation is up about 15 percent over the last two years but level compared to last year. That was due to the Bemidji Girls 14U team turning into the Bemidji High School junior varsity team last year.

There are 75 youth teams expected to visit Bemidji this year for various games and tournaments. The signature event is the Paul Bunyan International Hockey Tournament from Dec. 29-Jan 1.

There were 15 pee-wee level teams from across the upper Midwest and Canada that participated in last year’s tournament.

“There is a $6.2 million annual economic impact youth hockey brings to Bemidji,” Pogue said. “It’s second only to BSU. There is no other entity, no other business or non-profit that drives more business to Bemidji than youth hockey over the winter. That’s our number one calling card and how we get sponsored. Every spot is sold inside the building (BCA). Those sponsors help keep our program intact. Without sponsors we couldn’t add more to the building or attract kids.”

The BCA will also be home to the majority of Bemidji High School hockey home games for the first time this winter. A few games will be played at the Sanford Center.

Building work is ongoing at the Bemidji Community Arena. Progress has been made on the upper level of the building around the rink but it will not open this year.

Wednesday’s event to celebrate the equipment grant included an hour-long practice session with the 102 mite players on the ice all at once. The practice was based on USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM) and groups were divided into skill-based stations of mini-games.

The ADM practices started last year in Bemidji and will continue this year. The goal of the national initiative is to help improve the skill level of young players across the country and help develop a love for the game without making it feel like a chore.

The ADM also an economic help according to Pogue as 100 players on an ice sheet at once can help lower ice rental costs.

“We’ve got an unbelievable amount of ice in Bemidji,” Pogue said. “We’ve just got to get the kids on it.”

Follow Eric Stromgren on Twitter at @estromgren and on Facebook.