Each September, as leaves begin their aureate descent toward New Prague’s bonfires, the village celebrates Dozinky in a nod to the Czech settlers who tamed this slice of southern Minnesota. Carried with them from the old country, it’s a thanksgiving for the season’s bountiful harvest.
Among hockey enthusiasts, that harvest has also included a cornucopia of fresh young hockey players. And like any great harvest, the seeds were sown with care, intent and a pioneering spirit.
“Our town takes a lot of pride in our hockey program,” said Joe Moravchik. “The girls’ high school team has been to state in the past decade and is poised to make another run. Our boys’ high school team went to state for the first time last year. That’s a big deal in Minnesota.”
Youth hockey forms the foundation of that success, and it’s a solid one in New Prague, where a cadre of dedicated volunteers works with the shared objective to make hockey fun, develop competitive teams and teach essential life skills.
Moravchik, who has two hockey-playing daughters, serves in a dual role with the New Prague Area Hockey Association as a marketer and a member of its player development committee. In the past three seasons, he’s been a driving force behind the growth, enthusiasm and success of girls’ hockey; now his focus has expanded to recruiting and retention efforts for both girls and boys.
Much of New Prague’s recent success is attributable to the most grassroots of grassroots marketing – players interacting with their peers – along with an energetic on-ice offering and some old-fashioned pioneer ingenuity.
“On the girls’ side of the operation, we sat down with each of our age groups and generated ideas from them about how to grow hockey,” said Moravchik. “Based on those conversations, we gave the girls a lot of input into our annual girls’ hockey recruiting event called the Great Skate. The girls made many of the decisions about the event, ranging from the design of our t-shirts to the food and drinks we serve, to the music and the on-ice games that we play, to the type of interaction that we have with our new recruits.”
Coupled with the girls’ own recruiting ideas and numerous spread-the-word efforts within the community, the Great Skate became an overwhelming success. In fact, the event earned honors from Minnesota Hockey, which presented Moravchik and New Prague with a 2013 Grow the Game Award and listed the Great Skate as a statewide best practice.
“The first year we ran it, we had 40 or 50 girls; it was a nice event but it did little to grow our association,” said Moravchik. “After we re-thought it and made some changes, we had over 95 girls come out in back-to-back years. This past September, we printed 115 t-shirts for the Great Skate and gave away every one. We challenged our girls to re-create the event, and it just goes to show that the kids really know best when it comes to what their friends find fun and also what their peers want to be a part of.”
Making involvement by the current players a focal point, New Prague’s 8U and 10U girls are tasked with bringing their non-hockey friends to the Great Skate while 12U players help new skaters find proper-fitting equipment. High school players in uniform manage the registration tables and concessions, provide locker room tours, and most importantly, offer on-ice encouragement to the new recruits.
“It’s really become a great program-building event for us,” said Moravchik. “Not just because of the numbers that we have at the Great Skate, or the newly registered players that we sign for each season, but the fact that the girls take ownership of the event really fits well with our overall plan of unifying all of the girls in our program from the time that they first put on skates as mites to the years that they play with the varsity team.”
Building on the player-centric theme, Moravchik, in a brainstorm session with his wife, Chris, developed another idea that sprang to life recently in the form of a slick new marketing video that the association tied to IIHF Girls Hockey Weekend.
“Much of how our daughters interact with their friends and teammates, even when they're hanging out together, is through social media and sending one another pictures and film clips,” said Moravchik. “They all seem to have a lot of fun creating and sending each other the video clips, so we thought, ‘why not capitalize on that for hockey recruiting?’”
Through funding from a Minnesota Hockey Pass the Puck Grant, New Prague was able to engage a talented local production company, Steep Hill Films, to produce a series of videos starring local players. The videos will be introduced during an association premiere night and promoted via social media, in elementary school classrooms and at local open houses.
On the ice, New Prague nurtures its players with a philosophical continuity woven from learn-to-skate through high school varsity. Not coincidentally, it parallels USA Hockey’s play-love-excel mantra.
“I’ve told our coaches that I grew up with the teaching and coaching philosophy of listen-learn-love-laugh,” said Moravchik, a former coach himself. “So I like the philosophy behind play-love-excel a lot. With it, USA Hockey develops young players physically and mentally, and a fundamental principle of that development model is that hockey is, and should be, a great deal of fun to play and learn about.”
By embracing that mindset, coaches in New Prague have helped create a vibrant, growing program, with strong numbers in almost every age and gender classification, in a town of only 7,500 residents.
“Both of our high school coaches, our director of hockey development, and most if not all of our youth coaches are proponents of the ADM, and that’s important because it puts us all on the same page regarding the comprehensive development of our athletes,” added Moravchik. “In fact, our high school boys head coach helps conduct ADM clinics throughout the year around the state. It shows his dedication to continuously teaching and learning about hockey and preparing our players, using a combination of traditional and the latest in coaching techniques advanced by USA Hockey.”
And while New Prague’s commitment to age-appropriate, age-specific training and competition has certainly benefited its players, the benefits to coaches shouldn’t be overlooked according to Moravchik, who speaks glowingly of the program’s coaches and credits them for their outstanding talent-development efforts.
“The fantastic part about the ADM is that is provides us with great structure and direction for our youth program,” he said. “When you’re administrating youth programs, you often see young coaches who come with hockey-playing experience, enthusiasm and good instincts for the game, but without much coaching experience, especially with children. It’s the old adage – just because someone was a great hockey player doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be a great youth hockey coach. So, with that structure and direction from the ADM for these inexperienced coaches – detailed practice plans are just one example – the result is confident, knowledgeable coaches providing proper on-ice leadership. And the benefit to the kids is an awesome hockey experience, learning the proper techniques of the game and the great values of being a part of a team, in a fun, challenging atmosphere. Ultimately, that's what it's all about.”
See how 9-year-old Lily -- and her dog, Bruin -- rallies her teammates to the rink in the first of New Prague Hockey’s promotional videos, courtesy of Steep Hill Films.