SARTELL, Minn. — Nik Jacobson grew up snowboarding and skateboarding.

But when his family moved to Sauk Rapids, another sport appeared for his children.

“We had a neighbor and his kids were playing hockey. We moved in there and I was like, ‘No. We’ll never do it,'” he said. “But they started playing roller hockey and said, ‘Dad, I want to play (ice) hockey.

“We were roped in and it was down hill,” Jacobson said with a laugh. His now 16-year-old son, Gunnar, “started playing hockey and I started playing adult league (hockey) because if he finds out, I might as well learn to skate. .”

Once Gunnar decided he wanted to play hockey, the next question was how to introduce him to the game. They eventually found the Little Wild Learn to Play program, now in its eighth year.

There was a similar program that CCM participated in in Los Angeles. We all sat in a room and kind of brainstormed and hammered out ideas. The four entities were like, ‘Let’s do this.’

Glen Andresen

Minnesota Hockey and the Minnesota Wild have partnered to launch the program for kids ages 5-8 who have never played organized hockey. CCM, one of the biggest brands in hockey equipment, got involved by helping provide equipment to players.

“There was a meeting with four groups involved: the Wild, Minnesota Hockey, CCM and what was then Total Hockey (now Pure Hockey),” said Glen Andresen, executive director of Minnesota Hockey. “There was a similar program that CCM had participated in in Los Angeles. We all sat in a room and sort of brainstormed and hammered out ideas. The four entities were like, ‘Let’s do this.'”

Little Wild Learn to Play should not be confused with Try Hockey For Free, which is a program many Minnesota hockey associations use to encourage participation. Although Try Hockey For Free continues to be used as a one-day introduction to the game, players must provide their own equipment. The Little Wild Learn to Play program offers four one-hour sessions with coaches and all kids hockey equipment for $135.

Players participate in one of six stations during the first of four Little Wild Learn to Play sessions being held at Scheels Athletic Complex in Sartell, Minnesota. Players worked with coaches on skating and competed in small area games on September 12, 2022.

Mick Hatten / The Ice Rink Live

“What we found was that a really good Try Hockey Free event would get maybe 30% of those kids to sign up for (organized) hockey,” Andresen said. “We just thought, ‘We can do better than that.’ One session is not enough to fall in love with hockey. Some children learn to stand. They may not have the right equipment.

“These four entities could come together to make it a better experience,” Andresen said of Minnesota Hockey, the Wild, CCM and what is now Pure Hockey. “Instead of an hour, it’s now four hours. Instead of second-hand gear, it’s all new gear. Then you get the Wild logo on it, the support of the Wild and the promotion of the Wild.

“We found that with four sessions, properly fitting equipment, and all kids on the ice that are the same age and similar abilities, it made it much more exciting and appealing to families… Our retention rates for Little Wild’s enrollment are just about 75 percent. It’s been a huge success and a huge way to get more families into hockey.
At the start of the program, families had to go to Total Hockey to get their equipment and pick it up. This year, the equipment could all be ordered online and delivered to the participant’s home.

The program is run at 20 locations across Minnesota. In Sartell’s first session, there were 3-4 coaches at six stations spread across the ice. The session was led by Sartell-St. High school boys coach Stephen Ryan Hacker, a former University of Denver player.

Little Wild Learn to Play 4
Players work on getting off the ice and standing in hockey stance during one of six stations during the first of four Little Wild Learn to Play sessions being held at the Scheels Athletic Complex in Sartell, Minn. The players worked with coaches on skating and took part in small area games on September 12, 2022.

Mick Hatten / The Ice Rink Live

An experienced coach and former player is common among the lead coaches in the Little Wild Learn to Play program.

“Minnesota Hockey coordinates a head coach at all locations and I’m one of them — I’m in charge of the Bloomington location,” Andresen said. “We tell them to have at least eight (coaches), but you can never have enough coaches. Our first night I had 15 other coaches there.

“The challenge for us is to find enough coaches to help us. The coaches who run them, some have done it since the first year…they love doing it and they have people who love being part of it, even if they don’t have children in the program, they are happy to help these beginners.

Having so many coaches on the ice helps keep players involved and find help if they need it.

“I think it’s great,” Jacobson said. “Kids get inexpensive ice time and have fun. There are great games. They involve everyone. Everyone is included: everyone from beginners to kids who can skate well, which is great.

All sites offer opportunities for boys and girls. TRIA Rink, however, also offers a girls-only program.

Jacobson has a daughter (Sumalee) and her youngest son Milo, 7, is her third child to participate in Little Wild Learn to Play.

“(Milo) watched his older brother and my daughter play for a while and then she went dancing,” Nik Jacobson said. “Everyone complains about the high price of hockey, but it’s cheap compared to gymnastics. Anyone who wants to challenge that, I’ll take them on.”

People who want more information about the Little Wild Learn to Play program can visit https://www.nhl.com/wild/community/. Andresen said not all venues stay the same from year to year and they try to move the program to remote locations.

2022 Little Wild Learn to Play Program Sites

Anoka — Anoka Ice Rink
Armstrong-Cooper—New Hope Arena
Bloomington — Bloomington Ice Garden
Brooklyn Park – Brooklyn Park Community Activity Center
Buffalo – Buffalo Civic Center
Delano – Delano Area Sports Arena
Dodge County—Four Seasons Arena
Duluth – Heritage Sports Center
Eden Prairie — Eden Prairie Community Center
Forest Lake — Forest Lake Sports Center
Hastings — Hastings Civic Arena
Minneapolis—Ice Garden Parade
Owatonna – Steele County Four Season Center
Plymouth — Plymouth Ice Center
Sartell — SCHEELS sports complex
Saint-Louis Park – Saint-Louis Park Leisure Center
St. Paul — TRIA Rink (two programs, one for girls only)
Stillwater — St. Croix Recreation Center
Woodbury — M Health Fairview Sports Center