Little Bruins

Courtesy of Keene ICE

Pint-sized participants take to the ice in last year’s Little Bruins program in Keene.

Registration is now open for the Bruins Academy Learn to Play — also known by its previous moniker, “Little Bruins” — a hockey clinic for children who were born from 2010 through 2014 to be held at Keene ICE in the fall.

Parents have until Friday, Aug. 2, to register for the program, which offers full gear for kids to keep and four sessions in October with coaches for a $140 registration fee.

The program’s goal is to expand access to hockey by lowering one of the most costly barriers to entry: head-to-toe equipment.

The retail value of the Little Bruins equipment — which includes everything from skates and sticks to shin pads, pants, shoulder pads, gloves and a helmet — is around $500, according to the Boston Bruins, and the National Hockey League club says it gave away more than $2.5 million in equipment to more than 5,000 kids across New England last year.

The NHL initiative also includes free registration for USA Hockey, the governing body of all certified youth programs in the United States.

In Keene, the program is entering its third year, and has been a success so far, according to Keene ICE Operations Manager and Hockey Director Bobby Rodrigue.

“We’ve had what the Bruins consider to be a pretty remarkable retention rate so far,” Rodrigue said, noting that the “vast majority” of the 100-plus kids who registered for Little Bruins last year filtered into the Keene Youth Hockey Club Cobras’ full-season learn-to-play program.

Rodrigue said the program has already bolstered the Cobras’ Mite and Squirt ranks, with the Mites — the youngest level, starting at ages 5 and 6 — now fielding enough players for four in-house teams to play against each other instead of relying on travel, and the Squirts will have three travel teams next season.

“[The Bruins] recognize that one of the barriers to entry in this game is the cost of the equipment right out of the gate,” Rodrigue said.

Chris McIntosh, head coach of the Keene High School boys varsity hockey team, said the program is important in not only bringing a more diverse set of players into the game, but also highlighting the unique economic challenges of hockey — what McIntosh calls “soft costs” that go beyond pricey equipment.

“The stuff that’s under the surface, tip-of-the-iceberg kind of thing,” McIntosh said.

Traveling, the expense of renting the ice for practices and games, along with the opportunity costs parents face in having to drive the kids around New England for games all add up, McIntosh said.

Another factor McIntosh noted is how much more expensive equipment gets as players get older. Recently, he recalled buying his 10-year-old son a new pair of skates, which hover near $250 compared to the boy’s first pair at age 5 that went for around $50.

Then there are the sticks.

“I think the biggest thing that we always laugh about that’s just crazy is the sticks,” McIntosh said. “The hockey sticks that all of our players have are like $200 each, and I swear they break three or four of them a year.”

Some bright spots, McIntosh and Rodrigue say, are programs like the varsity high school team’s boosters and scholarships the Keene Cobras offer to families who can’t afford the full rate to play.

McIntosh said Keene High’s athletic department also covers socks, pant shells and jerseys for his players.

Time-honored traditions also have a role in bringing the cost of playing down, the coach said, particularly carpooling.

“That’s kind of a hockey legacy, where you’ve got the hockey moms, and they’ve got four or five players in their car, and everyone seems to rotate on weekends depending on when they’re available,” he said.

Rodrigue, who also coaches the Keene State College men’s club team, said efforts like the Little Bruins program help bolster the pipeline for hockey in the Monadnock Region, ensuring that enough opportunities remain for players of different skill levels.

Once parents register under the Keene program at https://learntoplay.nhl.com/bruins#checkout-datesort, a fitting session is offered in Manchester on Aug. 17 at the Bruins Fan Fest, where current and former players attend, and hockey-themed carnival games are offered for the kids as they try on equipment and have their sizes entered into an app.

Each child gets to come home with a new stick, and the equipment orders are shipped to the family’s home in a box that opens up to look like a Bruins locker room stall.

Rodrigue noted that the quality of Keene ICE as a newer facility is a crucial factor in attracting a bargain program like this one, and that it has long-reaching benefits in the community beyond the four on-ice sessions.

“What we’ve found since partnering with the Bruins for the Little Bruins program is that we’re growing the product at the bottom end,” Rodrigue said.

And for hockey parents like McIntosh, any effort to get the costs of hockey under control to open up the sport is a plus.

“We have a lot of expenses,” he said. “... It’s very impressive what these parents do on top of everything else in life, and the community itself to step up and raise the kind of funds we do on an annual basis, because a lot of the stuff we do might not [otherwise] be as accessible or successful.”

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.