Finding their footing: Concord program helps kids learn to skate
|Published: 11-23-2023 3:00 PM
Before the Concord boys’ high school hockey team started play in the playoffs last winter, most of them could vividly recall playing in their first-ever hockey tournament with Concord Youth Hockey.
“They all had this big smile on their face,” said Wes Riley, the Concord Youth Hockey program director. “They could tell you exactly what happened and who they were on the same line with, and it was all their friends. … It’s one of those things that the kids you skated with, chances are, they’ll become your lifelong friends.”
Kyle Poirier, the current head coach for the Learn to Skate and Intro to Hockey programs, joined Concord Youth Hockey himself when he was 8. It helped set the stage for his high school and college hockey careers.
“That’s kind of what made me circle back to it,” he said.
Now, his daughter, 8, and son, 4, participate. It’s a common theme at Everett Arena: one generation of hockey die-hards passing on their love of the sport to the next.
“Love of the game, love of the sport and the direct interaction,” said Riley, now 67 years old, of what’s kept him around Concord Youth Hockey for so long. “I see the direct impact of my donation every single week I go into the rink.”
Nearly every fall and winter weekend morning for the last 45 years or so, Riley’s found himself at Everett Arena helping 4-, 5- and 6-year-old kids onto the ice for the first time.
Concord Youth Hockey began in 1957; Learn to Skate started roughly 10 years later, intended to get young kids interested in skating and, consequently, interested in playing hockey.
Over the course of the 20 or so sessions, kids learn how to skate forward and backward, stickhandle, pass pucks and any number of other hockey skills. The current session began in early October and runs through the holidays in late December. Another session begins in January and continues into March.
While not every 4-year-old is going to stick with the sport through high school, it’s hard to not draw a direct connection between Concord Youth Hockey and the long-time success of the boys’ and girls’ programs at Concord High School. Players might not stay in Concord Youth Hockey their entire youth careers, sometimes venturing out to play travel leagues and others that offer enhanced competition, but they often all start on the sheet of ice at Everett Arena.
In 2014, the Learn to Skate program had fallen to just 14 kids, far too few to build a sustainable youth hockey program in the community. Instead of trying to recruit more parents or former college hockey and star high school players to coach, Riley focused on bringing aboard current high school players who he thought could connect with the young skaters.
“I brought out average kids that had a better personality, kids that were willing to go down on the ice and make snowmen on the ice, get down to a kid’s level and actually play with them and promote them,” Riley said. “I got the right people at that time with the right personalities, and we started to grow the program.”
Now, enrollment for Learn to Skate is up to 62 kids. Intro to hockey, the next level up, has 48 players. Overall, there are 169 kids total in Concord Youth Hockey who are 8 years old or younger.
Riley’s not sure how much longer he’ll be willing to roll out of bed early in the morning to head to the rink at 7 a.m. on the weekends. After over four decades of time poured into the program, it’ll soon be time to pass the torch.
However, having people like Poirier involved, who played in the program themselves and understand its great value to the community, makes him feel good about where things stand.
“I’ve got people now bringing their kids to our Learn to Skate that were in the Learn to Skate years ago,” Riley said. “It’s to the point where (I’m) ‘Grandpa Coach.’ It’s just been one of those things where you can see the benefit of your giving.”