A child receives a free street hockey stick and ball handed out by the Colorado Avalanche through their Game On initiative at the Parker Days Festival in early June. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche
Shane, a 10-year-old from Pueblo, noticed something at the Colorado State Fair that immediately grabbed his attention.
“Me and my family were at the other side of the fair, and we saw a bunch of people walking around with hockey sticks,” he said. “So we came to get one.”
What Shane and his family discovered when they arrived at a group of popup canopies next to a trailer emblazoned with Colorado Avalanche colors and logos on the state fairgrounds was the NHL team's Game On initiative, a program focused on putting free street hockey sticks and balls in the hands of the state’s youth and spark a life-long passion for hockey.
Rui Encarnacao, program manager in the team’s Amateur Hockey Development Department, said Game On’s goals are simple.
“The short-term goal is to get as many sticks and balls into the hands of youth players as possible,” he said. “The long-term goal is to develop these new fans into hockey players. The purpose of the program is to grow the game of hockey at the grass-roots level.”
The Avalanche planted a number of seeds to grow the sport this summer, giving away more than 12,000 sticks. Their goal is to reach 15,000 sticks before the start of the NHL season in October. Encarnacao said there are plans to schedule a few more events before the deadline, but the number of sticks passed out is not as important as making connections with the kids.
“We have kids leaving with smiles on their faces, and we’re making new fans and hockey players,” he said.
“The instructors taught us how to hold the stick the right way and that you shouldn’t lift the stick above your knees, so you don’t hit anyone with it,” he said.
Among the instructors are Bernie, the St. Bernard who serves as the Avs’ mascot, as well as the Ice Patrol — the team’s new group of brand ambassadors.
Several former Avalanche players such as John-Michael Liles, Pierre Turgeon and Rick Berry have lent a hand, as well.
Encarnacao said the younger participants buy into the instruction and having “celebrities” teach the skills is important for creating connections between the kids, the sport and the team.
“Some kids recognize these players, but the parents certainly recognize them," he said. "I think it’s great that these guys are willing to give back with their time to help grow the game.”
Besides the Colorado State Fair, the Game On initiative was at the Denver County Fair, the Denver BBQ Festival, and the Parker Days Festival.
Stick giveaways have also occurred at the Heart Association’s Heart Walk in Colorado Springs and Aurora’s Back To School event — two cities in which the Game On giveaway may not have normally taken place if not for those events, Encarnacao said.
And both proved to be successes.
“For the Heart Walk, we were only there for a couple of hours, but we gave away more than 300 sticks,” Encarnacao added. “For the Aurora event, we were there three hours and gave away more than 400 sticks.