Little Sharks continuing to grow youth game in San Jose, around local Bay Area
In yet another sign that the game of hockey continues to grow in Northern California, the Little Sharks Learn to Play program is not only seeing exponential growth in San Jose, but also in surrounding communities.
In partnership with the NHL and NHLPA, the Little Sharks program is designed for children ages 5-9 who have no prior hockey experience and are interested in picking up the sport of hockey. Through fun, age-appropriate lessons, Little Sharks creates a positive first-time hockey experience for all participants.
For a one-time fee of $175, participants receive head-to-toe hockey gear, six one-hour on ice lessons, a one-year USA Hockey membership, a ticket to an upcoming 2019-20 San Jose Sharks home game and membership to the 2019-20 FINatical Kids Club.
Starting out at Solar4America Ice at San Jose, the program currently runs in 10 rinks in the Bay Area and has recently expanded to include Vacaville Ice Sports and Skatetown Ice Arena in Roseville. The Little Sharks program runs two times a year, and Snoopy’s Home Ice in Santa Rosa is planning on joining for the spring 2020 session.
Part of what makes the Little Sharks run so smoothly is the fact three Sharks alumni – Scott Hannan, Mark Smith and Tom Pederson – are associated with the program. The alumni serve as the head coach at each Little Sharks class (with the exception of Vacaville and Skatetown, due to distance). Hannan is typically the lead instructor at Solar4America Ice at San Jose classes.
“I think the most gratifying part about being involved in the Little Sharks program is seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces and the enjoyment they get from playing hockey,” Hannan said. “I enjoy seeing the kids around the rink in the following years playing hockey and the impact the program has had in getting kids into the sport.
“As a former Sharks player and as a father, I understand the importance of sports for kids. The game of hockey has taught me so much, not just in sports, but in life. I enjoy having a positive influence and possibly getting some kids to enjoy the game of hockey as much as I did growing up.”
Solar4America Ice at San Jose has participated in Little Sharks since it began in the spring of 2015. Since then, Solar4America Ice at San Jose has hosted 21 classes, including a girls-only Little Sharks class, and has seen a total of 925 kids come through the program at this location alone. Overall, Little Sharks has seen more than 2,700 kids participate in the program.
“For me, the most gratifying thing about Little Sharks is being able to see these kids experience hockey for the first time,” Smith said. “When you see a kid realizing how fast they can go, and how fun it is to shoot something as hard as they can without worrying about getting in trouble, it’s a real eye-opener for a lot these kids that don’t get that release in today’s structured world. I get to encourage that self-confidence, and in just six weeks, you can actually see their personalities change. It’s pretty amazing what this sport can do.
“Hockey is so different from any other sport and unfortunately, it’s tough to get involved because of the cost and uncertainty that new hockey parents have. This program breaks down those barriers, it allows them to experience the game, and allows these kids to try it out and see if it’s something that they would like to pursue. For new parents to hockey, it’s an easy entry point, and an opportunity to learn what hockey is all about without a huge commitment.”
The Bridge Series program, a 10-session continuation program created specifically for Little Sharks, runs at the conclusion of Little Sharks and every time the organization has run it, there are approximately 90-100 kids split into two groups. From there, the players join the house league or go to the regularly-scheduled learn-to-skate classes that are run year-round.
The series will help those participants “bridge” the gap from learn-to-play classes to the league practices. It will allow them to gain a little more confidence and work on their fundamental skills at the appropriate pace. At the completion of the Bridge Series, the goal is that most participants should be able to join the winter season that starts up on-ice in September.
“Seeing the Little Sharks Program grow since the start is a testament to the positive influence the Sharks organization has had on the local community,” said Hannan. “Both the Sharks Foundation and the Sharks Alumni Foundation actively participate and give back to local sports. The sky is the limit for hockey in Northern California and I see the Little Sharks program being a leader for getting kids and families to enjoy the game of hockey and maybe bleed a little teal long the way.”
“I think growing the sport of hockey in the Bay Area helps everyone,” added Smith. “I feel there are a lot of kids that grow up here that don’t get a chance to understand what discipline is. This just compounds as you get older and leads to much bigger problems down the road. Discipline helps you to focus, provides you with goals, and allows you to accomplish them, giving you self-confidence and a feeling of purpose. Hockey is a sport that demands discipline. By giving kids the chance to learn that art and discover how good it feels to overcome obstacles, you’re not just helping them become a better athlete, you’re helping them become a better person, which benefits everyone.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the program grow so quickly. We’ve added more classes to the same locations, as well as expanded to new cities in just three years. I think the low barrier to entry is the key. We see a lot of families being referred from graduate families, as well as multiple siblings going through the program.”
Moving forward, the clear goal of the Little Sharks is to keep giving the area youngsters a fun and enlightening introduction to the game of hockey.
“We want to pass on the wealth of hockey knowledge we’ve amassed over our lives to a new generation,” Smith said. “It’s quite a niche area of expertise, but the real value of hockey, from what I’ve learned, is the way it translates into the real world. The confidence and self-awareness, the interaction with teammates and learning to work hard and as a group are skills it takes to be successful in anything.
“You get to learn all of these traits by just having fun. You don’t even know you’re doing it.”
— Matt Mackinder
(Aug. 8, 2019)