Great strides made from skating program

Queen’s Park Elementary students have gone from not wanting to be on the ice, even crying, to skating and playing Penticton minor hockey.

DANAICIA PETTY gets a helping hand from Penticton Vees captain Troy Stecher

DANAICIA PETTY gets a helping hand from Penticton Vees captain Troy Stecher

Queen’s Park Elementary students have gone from not wanting to be on the ice, even crying, to skating and playing Penticton minor hockey.

That is the impact the school’s Learn to Skate program, which will no longer continue, has made.

Learn to Skate was the brainchild of principal Rob Zoppi. The students in Grades 1 to 5 participated in five, 45-minute sessions throughout November. They hit the ice  at the South Okanagan Events Centre community rink Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Zoppi had a blast working with the kids and they have had just as much fun.

“I like that I’m really good at it,” said Hadley Erickson, who is now playing hockey with her brother Jake.

She still remembers the first time on the ice.

“I was a little bit wobbly,” said Erickson. “The second time I got pretty good.”

Ivy Nevala, a rookie, enjoyed the program.

“I just love skating,” she said. “I think it’s a good experience for me to learn so much stuff.”

Playing Star Wars was a hit, even if it meant they were struck by flying objects. Instructors would throw balls at them and the kids would try and dodge them. If caught, they had to return the favour. Star Wars was all about keeping the kids’ feet moving. Nevala also enjoyed the obstacle course created from mini-pylons and lengthy foam logs spread throughout the ice.

“It’s fun but sometimes I fall down,” said Nevala. “I was really nervous because I thought that someone would laugh at me. I was horrible at skating and I didn’t know how to.”

Queen’s Park Elementary teacher Alex Gardner said the obstacle course was intended for the kids to use different skills such as turning. Hockey sticks were utilized for the kids to lift their feet, using their edges. It was a valuable teaching tool.

While some kids whip around pretty good, balance remains a small issue as some leaned forward a bit, trying hard to avoid a face plant. However, the desire to be on the ice transferred to playing hockey. Twenty-five kids in the program are playing for the minor association.

Last year Zoppi added a pilot project to have a hockey team, the first of its kind in B.C. according to him, in public school at the entry level. They had 28 kids from Grades 1 to 5.

“Through the Jumpstart program they are able to give us an additional grant for some of the equipment for the kids. It’s neat to see their progression from the Learn to Skate to the next level and do the hockey team.”

“It’s kind of like the farm league for Penticton Minor Hockey Association,” said Zoppi. “Every Friday from 7 to 8 a.m. we are at Memorial Arena. We had an anonymous donor donate money for the ice time. The city donated ice time for Learn to Skate during the last four years, which is huge. Without their support, we couldn’t do it.”

The big boost this year came from Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program. Doug MacMillan, owner of Penticton’s Canadian Tire, spoke with the Jumpstart committee and was told to provide whatever was needed. They ended up with 75 pairs of skates. Initially the program was using skates from the city and Zoppi said that was a scramble to find the right ones. He joked that they had an old pair Gordie Howe used. Zoppi applied for a grant requesting 40 skates.

“It was interesting to see the kids’ faces the first time they saw the new skates,” said Zoppi. “They were like, ‘Wow, look how shiny these skates are.’ They all wanted a new pair of skates. It’s been a win-win situation. It helps with process of getting kids on the ice faster.”

Forty parent volunteers, Global Spectrum staff and members of the Penticton Vees (captain Troy Stecher, Brock Balson and Bryan Sinz) assisted in the craze taking place in the dressing room last Thursday. It takes under 10 minutes to get the kids ready for the ice.

Jim McKay and Cori Leadbeater, a grandparent and parent who help with tying skates, love the program. McKay said it’s the one best he has seen at schools.

“It’s just that everybody gets a chance,” said McKay. “Mr. Zoppi and Mr. Gardner take a lot of their time to do this.”

“They all have a blast. They love it,” said Leadbeater, whose hands get a little sore from tying skates.

She enjoys watching them progress from being scared to building confidence.

That is something Vees rookie forward Brad McClure has noticed.

“I have seen a lot of kids progress quite a bit,” said McClure, who recalls junior players in his hometown skating with him. “It’s good to see that they don’t need your help anymore.”

“I’ve been out a few times teaching the kids how to skate,” said MacMillan. “It’s been awesome. Out here today, I just have a big smile on my face. Seeing the big advancements that they all made. It’s pretty incredible.”

This year Zoppi and Gardner had to be more hands-on because the Okanagan Hockey School couldn’t continue its support of providing staff for on-ice instruction like the previous three years. Andy Oakes, president of the OHS, said they had staff reductions. That prevented them from being able to help the skating program while maintaining their day-to-day operations.

With that change, Zoppi said it isn’t feasible for them to continue the program. It takes a lot of work that includes other staff members from Queen’s Park Elementary filling in for himself and Gardner during their absence.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Zoppi, adding that despite the program ending, they will use the skates for the regular skating sessions. “You have to enjoy it when you have that kind of support and it’s time to move onto something else. I think what we’ve done for four years has been amazing.”