Hitting the ice can mean a couple of things when talking hockey when it relates to the members of the Innisfail Eaglets hockey program.
“We fall down extensively here,” said Bernie Vanderham who has been with the program for the past seven years. “We’re official helmet testers for Innisfail Minor Hockey and Hockey Alberta.”
All kidding aside, Vanderham says the falling down part is not surprising given the fact these four- and five-year-olds are not that far removed from learning how to walk.
“We start right from falling down. Our first practice is we learned to get up and at the end of the practice they learn to walk that night on the ice.”
From there the players will progress to other skills like stepping over sticks and using a soccer ball in order to get them headed towards being better skaters.
About 40 boys and girls are registered in the program which is operated with the help of some parents on the ice and supported by those in the stands watching their children learn the game from the ice up.
Vanderham’s son learned from the same program when he was that age and is now on the ice running drills and tying skates.
In addition to learning hockey skills the group will also take home some practical life lessons as they learn to love the game.
“They’re going to learn the social skills. They’re going to learn that with a little bit of hard work, there’s a payoff at the end of it and that we never quit,” Vanderham said.
The smiles on the faces of these hockey players is a great indication the program is reaching many of them at some level and Vanderham says it’s really cool seeing them gather more skills each time on the ice as they understand what they did right in a drill.
As for himself, Vanderham says the whole program has been a very rewarding experience for him throughout the years.
“My wife doesn’t like me coming home after practice,” he said. “I’m wired up. I’ve got to talk about this kid and this kid is starting to get it, this one’s starting to catch on. Stuff like that.”
So while the kids enjoy themselves no matter if they are staying up on their skates or making contact with the ice with another part of the gear, Vanderham says at the end of the day the goal is very much a straightforward one.
“I’m just hoping I can get them hooked on hockey for 12 years and maybe somebody will be really good some day. Who knows?”