No letup for Golden Knights as they elevate youth hockey in Las Vegas

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Christopher DeVargas

Chance the Gila Monster teaches the basics of street hockey at the Walnut Recreation Center as part of a Vegas Golden Knights youth hockey outreach program, Tuesday, July 10, 2018.

Wed, Jul 11, 2018 (2 a.m.)

Nine-year-old Audrie Malta and her 3-year-old brother Logan love hockey.

The two of them turn their living room into a hockey rink, batting a ball across the carpet using cardboard rolls from old Christmas wrapping paper as hockey sticks.

On Tuesday, Audrie held a hockey stick in her hands for the very first time and was shown how to use it by Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” Malta said. “It’s kind of confusing because your two hands go different ways, but once you get it, it’s actually pretty fun.”

Engelland joined members of the Golden Knights’ youth hockey coaching staff Tuesday as they held a street hockey clinic for children ages 6-10 at the Walnut Recreation Center near Cheyenne Avenue and North Las Vegas Boulevard.

The children got to meet Engelland, Chance the Gila Monster mascot, and go through drills to work on stick handling, passing and shooting.

“You want to get out in the community and do as much as you can,” Engelland said. “Your first love is hockey and you want to grow it here in Las Vegas. How much it’s grown in just one season is phenomenal to see.”

Orange hockey balls flew in every direction as the kids slapped them around with hockey sticks they took home after the event. It’s part of the Golden Knights’ initiative to grow the sport during the offseason. It started last summer with “Sticks for Kids” events and continues this year with clinics at 11 community centers around the valley.

“This is about building fans and an appreciation for the game,” said senior manager of youth hockey development Matt Flynn. “For a lot of these kids, hockey is a foreign concept in general. We recognize this isn’t the first thing they’re going to do when they walk outside to play. It’s going to be basketball, baseball, soccer or football. This is the least-accessible sport, but this at least gets a stick in their hands and shows them that they can do it out in the street with their friends, or at these summer camp programs.”

The youth hockey scene has grown tremendously in Nevada in the last year with registration numbers up 15.19 percent from 2016-17, according to USA Hockey. That is a massive increase considering the nationwide growth was only 1.26 percent.

“It’s tremendous,” Flynn said. “I was pleasantly shocked by the number of kids that were making the leap from being casual fans to playing the sport.”

Granted, Nevada’s growth numbers are inflated because the starting point was so low. Even with the increase there are still only 1,592 registered with USA hockey in the state.

USA Hockey registration numbers are only a fraction of those participating in the sport, but it’s a good indicator for growth, and specifically which areas are growing the most. Nevada saw a massive spike in women’s and girls’ hockey with a rise of 59.7 percent compared to the national growth of 4.65 percent.

The 6-and-under age group also rose exponentially with a 144 percent rise from 34 to 83 participants over the last year.

Flynn said he expects the overall participation numbers in Nevada to grow from 30 to 40 percent for next year.

“It’s all a growth opportunity,” he said. “Everything that they monitor is all going to go up. Some of it already has and some will go up leaps and bounds.”

Among the three ice rinks in town, the team had more than 1,500 new participants for its “Learn to Skate” programs. Thanks to a grant from the NHL, they were able to reduce the cost of those programs by 50 percent for first-timers, and 25 percent for returning students.

Flynn knows not every parent can afford getting their child involved in ice hockey, especially right away, which makes the street hockey clinics that much more important. Children all over the valley will get a chance to learn from Engelland and other Golden Knights staffers this summer and take the sticks home.

“You want these kids to be able to turn on the TV and say, ‘Hey I learned how to do that at summer camp. Deryk Engelland showed me how to shoot the puck and he just did it in the game,’” Flynn said. “To be able to relate that to what they’re seeing on TV is the tie-in we want.”

Whether kids are playing in their front driveway, local community center, or like Engelland’s kids — in the living room — the Golden Knights just want them playing hockey.

“The heat is brutal in the summer, so they can bang up the kitchen or living room like my kids do,” Engelland said, laughing. “We have a couple little nets. They shoot at those and hopefully they don’t break anything. We try to keep them using foam pucks but every once in awhile they find the real thing. We have to keep those hidden better.”

Tuesday was a great start to the initiative.

“It was so much fun, especially meeting Deryk Engelland, and he even signed my hockey stick,” said 9-year-old Cole Lusk, who became quite the diehard fan this season. “When they were playing the Stanley Cup, I watched every single game.”

Lusk, Malta and about 40 other kids got their introduction to hockey, and judging by the smiles and laughter that filled the gymnasium, it was a success.

“It’s good just to get kids involved, show them the way and hopefully they fall in love with it,” Engelland said. “We just want them to have fun. That’s the most important part.”

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