The quality house hockey programs at KC Ice Center change travel teams

The numbers were down this fall for the first time in many years for players trying out for the Kansas City Youth Hockey Association travel teams.

While that may sound bad, it’s not. The decrease reflects the success of the house program at the Kansas City Ice Center that has been so dramatic.

“Our house numbers are way up, because so many kids stayed with the house program,” said Dean Nelson, general manager of the KCIC. “Our hockey numbers are up, and that is reflected in the number of kids in the house leagues.

“We still have three Bantam travel teams (age 13-14), three Pee Wee (11-12) travel teams, but we only have one Squirt (9-10) travel team. We had two Squirt teams last year. We also have a U-16 team and two full teams for the Kansas City Jets.

“Our travel teams are still very competitive, and very full. Where we saw the slight drop-off was in the Squirt level and the Pee Wee level.”

Nelson said it is not because of a lack of interest in hockey at the highest level in the area. The house programs are so competitive that players don’t need to go to the expense or commitment of travel hockey. The move to tiering last year already has paid dividends.

Tiering is splitting players in the same age group based on skill level. Better and more experienced players are put on the gold level, while the less experienced players are playing in the silver division. That benefits both the veterans and the newcomers.

“It’s a great situation for the kids,” Nelson said. “They can play against and with kids of similar skill-levels. What that does for the good players at the gold house level is keep them interested in the sport by playing good, competitive games. Having all kids on their teams at that same competitive level will push them. On the silver level, it helps those kids compete against kids who aren’t dominating them.

“Having a gold team on the house level is like having a good travel team, because the competitive level is so good. A lot of the kids who played in the gold division last year stayed in the house leagues, because the gold level was so competitive.”

The travel program takes exceptional effort and commitment from both the players and their families. The cost difference for registration alone is around $1,000 each year. Add in the fact that travel teams are on the road almost every weekend, and one has to add in travel expenses for the families.

The time commitment also is a family thing. There are additional practices each week and the time involved for practices and games is significantly more.

“I think putting your kid in the travel program means a more dedicated commitment to hockey,” Nelson said. “It not only takes more dedication for the kid, but the whole family is committed, playing in the demographics we’re in. You’re traveling three or more hours away almost every weekend. We travel to St. Louis, to Springfield, to Des Moines, to Omaha, to Minnesota. It takes the full commitment of the family to get to the games.

“The house division is more for recreation. It’s one practice per week, instead of two. It might be a game or two per weekend, instead of four games on a weekend.”

Nelson, who grew up in Rochester, Minn., playing travel hockey said the house program here is a lot like what he’s used to.

“I look at the house program as being semi-travel, because they’ll go to St. Joe or Topeka. In Minnesota, travel hockey means playing a team across town. You didn’t have to stay overnight. There are things we are trying to do in the house program to not cost them quite as much.”

When Nelson took over six years ago the travel program was made up of teams that hoped to compete regionally. Now, the house programs generally are as competitive, and they may have exceeded the level of the travel teams from four or five years ago.

“This is exactly what I wanted to do when I got here,” Nelson said. “When I played travel hockey growing up, there were always three or four of those great players who would play on the house division teams. We felt they could play in travel hockey, but they wanted to be in the house program.

“That’s what we’re getting here. They would rather play house hockey because of the competition, and they know their opponents. What’s better than beating your best friend in a competition where he wants to be great?

“Did I think it would happen? I hoped it would. But we’re at that point now where it’s as good as it can be in this area. That’s what I focus on. Even though I coach at a higher level, there’s no greater joy than watching a young kid succeed for the very first time, because he’s in a competitive level that fits, and you helped him get there.”

Nelson said the growth in numbers and quality in the house programs is not unique to the KCIC in this area. Facilities around the KCYHA are seeing similar trends.

“Last year we had five or six kids who were playing on the KCYHA travel programs who didn’t sign up for the tryouts,” said Nelson, who was responsible for running the travel tryouts. “I reached out to them and asked where they were. They said, ‘We’re just going to play house hockey.’

“There are a number of reasons, but they know that they can get good competition at the house level. They know that 99.9 percent of the kids, even in the travel program, are not going to play in the NHL or even get a college hockey scholarship. The parents are not willing to spend a college education trying to get a college education. There are realists out there who understand that their kid can have fun and succeed that’s what’s most important.”

For more information on the Learn to Skate and Learn to Play Hockey Programs, public sessions, adult hockey, clinics and camps, parties, leagues and more, call 913-441-3033 or visit www.KCIceCenter.com.

For more youth sports coverage visit: http://kcsportspaper.com/category/youth-sports/

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Article by David Smale

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