Becca Syle-Riggers didn’t look too sure about stepping out on the ice with a crowd of stick-waving, helmet-visored hockey try-outs.
But the 8-year-old’s best friend, Sunny Charman, 7, was suited up and ready to go. She’s been skating since she was 3, and couldn’t wait to show Becca the sport her big brothers love. And on Saturday, the girls had the perfect opportunity at the Missoula Area Youth Hockey “Learn to Play Hockey” program.
They picked the right Saturday, too. This one included a visit from retired National Hockey League defenseman Brendan Witt, who subbed in to mentor beginning skaters all over the ice. The 14-year veteran of the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders and Nashville Predators now lives in Darby with his family, but regularly visits the Missoula rink for beginner programs.
“He called me up last spring, introduced himself and asked what he could do to help the program,” Missoula Youth Hockey Director Gary Jahrig said. “One of our biggest drawbacks to new players is cost. He helped us get an NHL Players Association grant for equipment.”
The $10,000 grant bought 25 complete sets of pads, helmets, sticks, skates and other supplies that MAYHA now loans to beginning hockey enthusiasts in the Learn to Play program. The gear is free to participants in the four-Saturday learning gig, and can be rented for $50 for those wanting to join a beginning team for a season.
This weekend, Witt had about 50 children, ages 4 to 14, trying to keep their skates under them. The most novice worked on the north end of the indoor rink, scooting around with ice-adapted walkers or getting the hang of guiding a puck with a stick blade.
On the south end, about a dozen members of the high school league Missoula Bruins in their red-and-black jerseys teamed with Witt to coach the more-experienced skaters. They worked through a fast-paced series of drills that led up to a rink-wide game of freeze-tag: youngsters against mentors.
“If you’re not having fun doing this, there are other things to do,” Witt said. “Sometimes you have to show them how not to be stiff, how you’re padded up and won’t get hurt if you fall. We’re just here for an hour to have fun. That’s what hockey’s about.”
Witt said when he was growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, the ice rink was the main outlet for young people. As he progressed toward team play, he joined an A-league squad in Seattle that had him driving through Montana on a regular basis. When he retired three years ago, he decided western Montana was the place he wanted to raise his own children.
“They like ice skating, but not hockey as much,” he said of daughters Aliana, 14, and Safiya, 10. “They’re into dance and archery and reptiles. And I get to be home with my kids, which is awesome.”
Five-year-old Odin Fiebelkorn had a big grin after bopping Witt and several other mentors with a foam ball during the freeze-tag game.
“I liked scoring,” he said. “It’s hard to get the puck into the net.”
If he keeps it up, Fiebelkorn could join more than 400 youths who play hockey in Missoula’s local and travel teams. On the adult side, more than 1,000 men and women participate in nine skill levels.
After the hour ended, Becca came off the ice with a smile. Sunny had showed her how to get back up after a fall, and the girls had gotten the hang of swatting a puck into the net.
“But the best part,” Becca said, “was skating as fast as I can and sliding on the ice on my knees.”