Breakaway: Youngsters Face Off On Ice

Nomaan Merchant

By Nomaan MerchantThe Daily Northwestern

Kyle Nelson, 11, stood tough as 12 of her peers fired shot after shot at her.

As a goalie, she’s used to this sort of thing. It’s part of the Peewee Gold ice hockey team’s routine.

As part of the Evanston Youth Hockey Association, she has played at different levels for five years, and last year her under-10 co-ed team won a state championship.

“It was really exciting when we won,” she said. “When the game ended, everybody else jumped on top of me.”

Nelson is one of more than 200 children in the program. Practices take place at Robert Crown Community Center and Ice Complex, 1701 Main St., almost every night.

“It’s amazing how much hockey skill they develop,” said Brad Nelson, whose three children, including Kyle, all play hockey at the center. “They really learn how to cooperate and work together.”

The coach of the 11-to-12-year-olds’ Peewee Gold team, Chris Jensen, was drafted by the National Hockey Leagues’ Toronto Maple Leafs in 1987. His skill shows on the ice – frost flies off his skates after each sharp turn and he fires laser beam shots at the two goalies. He does it to teach. That doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating, though.

“Stop it!” Kyle yelled after one Jensen goal.

The association holds programs for children from first grade through high school, with participants coming from around Chicago and the North Shore. Before high school, children can play in the association’s house leagues or the more advanced travel leagues, which play squads from throughout the North Shore.

The program can cost thousands of dollars per year, but EYHA sponsors need-based scholarships for low-income children.

Although the season begins with early September practices and ends in February, many families opt to participate in spring hockey and summer training camps, making hockey a year-round sport for some children.

“It’s a very comfortable environment for my daughter to be in,” parent Rocco Matera said. “She’s very enthusiastic.”

Jensen attributes this environment partly to strong parent involvement in the program. But Jensen said unlike other youth hockey leagues, EYHA parents don’t become intrusive or demanding.

“I’m very lucky because most coaches have to deal with a lot of parent issues,” Jensen said. “The families are really what drive it.”

Throughout the Peewee Gold practice, parents attentively – and quietly – sat in the stands or stood by the glass surrounding the rink.

Meanwhile, Jensen skated around the ice cheering on his players. After the two goalies stopped all shots on goal, Jensen ordered everyone else to do 10 pushups on the ice.

As practice continued, Jensen had the players periodically skate “suicides” from one end of the rink to another. But when he dismissed practice, the children left the ice laughing and jokingly hitting each other with their sticks.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” Kyle said. “I get to take my anger out on other people.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]