In certain areas of North America, the interest in hockey is strong but only in a smaller, tight-knit group of people. It's harder to build the game because the amount of resources required sometimes can't be met. Often, all it takes is a few individuals going the extra mile to spread awareness, bring people together, and grow the game.
Original story posted here.
When Kevin Cook was living in various regions of the southern part of the United States, he admittedly never played hockey.
“My primary exposure to the game was the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ game,” said Cook, who’s in his fifth year as the president of Junior Mudbugs Youth Hockey in Shreveport, Louisiana. “I got re-introduced to the game when the Mudbugs came here in 1997.”
After the 2010-11 season, when the Mudbugs captured the Central Hockey League’s Presidents Cup, they put Shreveport in the rear view mirror as they left the city.
“At the time, I was involved as a parent,” said Cook. “I helped with the [youth] program, was on the board and helped as a coach. A couple of us got together and decided we wouldn’t let this die and that we had to find a way for [kids] to play hockey.
“We band-aided the thing together. Tommy Scott, who owned the Mudbugs, put up money to underwrite the program. The numbers were in a death spiral. We only had a 10-week hockey season at that point because that was all the money we had.”
Eventually with Scott as the lead investor, he, along with Cook, acquired an NAHL franchise that moved into the Hirsch Coliseum.
“Last season we put ice in the building and ran our youth program there,” Cook said. “Our numbers increased exponentially just by announcing that the Mudbugs were coming back to Shreveport in a way that was economically feasible."
“When it’s 110 degrees outside, in Shreveport we’ll have ice probably not year-round but almost the whole year. Now, we’ll have the ability to run learn-to-play and learn-to-skate programs. We have a path in Shreveport where you can bring four-year-olds from a learn-to-skate program, move them into a youth hockey program and then into the NAHL or maybe college hockey. Then they’ll be able to come back to play adult hockey."
After the Mudbugs left Shreveport, less than 50 kids were registered for the Junior Mudbugs.
Now, according to Cook, kids are still signing up and the total is nearing 175.
“I made every mistake a southern-born guy could make with a kid who never played hockey,” Cook said. “We’ve learned from lots of mistakes we’ve made. But we’ve grown our volunteer base. We have enough former pro players who stayed in town and a lot of those guys became certified coaches.
“It’s all 100 percent volunteer coaches. They volunteer because they love the game."
That wasn’t the case seven years ago when Cook first became involved with the program.
“They had a youth hockey league,” he said. “It was pretty well run but they were starved for resources in terms of volunteers and for people to give back. I volunteered to help.
“Over the next couple of years I was a coach and a volunteer at various levels and then a board member. Five years ago I took over as president.”
Since Louisiana is a non-traditional hockey state, Cook realized something had to be done to entice kids to register for the Junior Mudbugs.
“In Michigan, when you put out a sign that you’re running a learn-to-skate program, people flock to the rink because dad played,” said Cook. “That’s not the case here. We go to schools, for example. This year we have players on our junior team going into schools and playing floor hockey with kids to get them introduced to the game. We also send kids home with flyers.
“You have to get kids introduced to the game. Some people don’t know we have hockey in Shreveport. I carry a USA Hockey backpack everywhere I go. I wear hockey shirts everywhere I go which gives me a chance to talk hockey. That’s a way to start a conversation.”
Given the warm climate in Louisiana and the variety of sports youngsters can choose to play, getting kids introduced to hockey is of paramount importance.
“The thing I’ve learned about hockey is if we can get kids to try it, they’ll fall in love with it,” said Cook. “They can go to school and wear their youth hockey T-shirt and say, ‘I play hockey.’ That separates them from their classmates. We try to help them understand what it means to be a good hockey player in terms of respect and being a good teammate.
“Hockey is different. It teaches these kids not about just being good hockey players but also good people, which is invaluable.”
What Cook relishes the most is working with the youngest of players.
“I feel I’m good at running the organization in terms of the behind the scenes stuff,” he said. “What I love to do is work with the five, six, seven and eight-year-olds. When they learn a new skill set for the first time and they smile, the satisfaction you get is what brings you back year after year.”