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Changing the Canadian hockey landscape

The First Shift is a new way of introducing families to our game
By Brendon Crossman, @coachcrossman
Above photo by Erin Riley

How do you put on a full set of hockey equipment? What is the cost for all that gear? How do you introduce kids to Canada’s national winter sport?

Many kids in Canada grow up with a hockey stick in their hands and some of the greats are seemingly born wearing skates. However, with 90 percent of youth in Ontario and Nova Scotia not playing hockey – according to a report in 2012 by Hockey Canada and Bauer Hockey – the future of our game appeared to be on thin ice.

Enter The First Shift.


C
lick here (or on the image) to apply for The First Shift.

The learn-to-play initiative created by Hockey Canada and Bauer Hockey is set for its second season of nationwide programs with one overarching goal – change the way hockey is offered to Canadians.

Ludovic Lord, who oversees the program for Hockey Canada as Manager of Recruitment Initiatives, believes The First Shift is well on its way to changing the minor hockey landscape in this county.

“[The First Shift] is inspiring families to join the hockey community and breaking down the barriers they perceive against joining hockey.”

The perceived barriers Lord references stem from the aforementioned report which polled 875 Canadian parents who had enrolled their child (age 4-16) in at least one organized sport per year, but elected against playing hockey. 

What was keeping all those families away from the rink? Four significant hurdles: cost, time commitment, perceived safety and competitiveness.

The First Shift aims to address those concerns by offering two introductory sessions each season for up to two years, with a focus on facilitating a fun experience for players and their families at a low cost.

As Lord points out, one of the most welcoming aspects of The First Shift is consistency. “Every on-ice session is on the same day, same time, same rink and has the same coach.”

That’s no small feat for the go-go-go culture of 2015.

Before reaching the national level, The First Shift got its legs from a pilot program called The Big Assist – a warmup, if you will, hosted in Scarborough and Halifax early in the 2013-14 season. The overwhelmingly successful initiative saw about 84 percent of participants go on to sign up with their local association, according to a February 2014 press release from the program’s brainpowers.

Hot on the heels of the successful pilot, four more events were held from February to March 2014 in Ontario and Nova Scotia. The SHA Hockey Club played host each time, with club president Ed Wahl as a driving force.

“Overall we had a 92 percent retention for the first program when the players continued into the remainder of play that year,” stated Wahl of the pilot program’s success. “Two years later I would estimate that we have 35 to 40 players still in our program registered for this upcoming season.”

When the program hit the national stage as The First Shift in 2014-15, the GTHL hosted one of 35 sessions. With up to 45 players in each group, the expanded initiative helped more than 1,400 Canadian kids hit the ice for the first time. According to Hockey Canada, 86% of participants in last year’s first segment re-enrolled for transition sessions with their association.

Lord says organizers are hoping to roll out 100 events across Canada this season, with 63 already confirmed for the fall. The Duffield Sports Club, West Mall Minor Hockey Association and Mississauga Hockey League – hosting for a second time – will carry The First Shift torch within the GTHL in 2015-16.

Visit TheFirstShift.ca to learn more.

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