FARMINGTON, Minn. (WCCO) — Five-year-old Nash Lee grabs the puck and dashes down the ice. As his parents, Rachel and Josh, watch from the seats above, he fires off a wrist shot and deposits the puck in the back of the net.
Goal for the green team.
“He’s a diehard,” says his mom, Rachel. “He doesn’t want to come off the ice.”
In Farmington, there are a lot of young boys and girls who share that sentiment these days. Lee is part of what can only be described as nothing short of a movement.
Just two years ago, there were 40 kids in Farmington’s 4-and-5-year-old program.
This year, there were 96.
“This has been explosive growth,” said Rob Juncker, the president of the Farmington hockey association board.
What’s happening at Farmington is happening across Minnesota. Participation at the youngest level — age 8-and-under — has surged in the last three years. And this year, Minnesota set a new record, surpassing more than 17,000 kids age 8-and-under for the first time ever.
So what’s causing it?
“Intro to hockey [programs], learn to skate programs, try hockey for free programs,” said Derek Ricke of Minnesota Hockey, which governs the sport in the state and works to promote it. “You see a lot more equipment drives.”
Minnesota Hockey started those initiatives six years ago, Ricke said, with a renewed focus on reaching that 8-and-under age group. And it’s worked.
“Making [hockey] more accessible,” he said. “Giving people an opportunity to try it before they go out and have to spend money for all the equipment and stuff like that.”
There was also a shift in philosophy six years ago. Minnesota adopted USA Hockey’s American Development Model, which included having kids at the youngest level begin playing cross-ice instead of full-length.
“They’re touching the puck more, they’re involved in the play more,” Ricke said. “They’re just more engaged and having more fun. And that really helps our retention numbers, which in the end, really helps our growth.”
Make no mistake, there are many places in Minnesota where the numbers are headed in the other direction — many of them in the Metro area — and that remains an issue. But across the state, Ricke said, the 8-and-under numbers have increased in a strong majority of associations.
“We have about 140 associations, and last year (about) 80 of them grew,” he said. “When you start getting 60, 70 percent of your associations growing over a single season, you know you’re making a difference. Because you’re never going to be able to keep every association growing, there’s just too much going on in different communities. But the goal is, if we can get most making progress, that’s a good thing.”