The Castleton University men’s hockey players were getting ready to board the bus in front of Spartan Arena for the trip to Plattsburgh State on Oct. 30. Some of the players weren’t boarding immediately. They wanted to go back inside the arena and say good-bye to the miniature hockey players, The Little Bruins.
“I realized then how much our guys cared about the community,” Castleton men’s hockey coach Kyle Richards said.
The Boston Bruins Academy’s Learn to Play Hockey program (The Little Bruins) provided Rutland area hockey players from ages 5-9 with equipment and on-ice practices at Spartan Arena for four Saturdays in October.
“The kids look forward to getting the equipment. They become Bruins fans for life. It is a great program,” Spartan Arena manager Steve Wolf said.
John Sinclair is the Little Bruins coordinator. He works with the program as well as with the Rutland Amateur Hockey Association (RAHA), a non-profit USA Hockey registered community hockey association that is a longtime staple of youth sports in Rutland.
Sinclair said the relationship with the players on the Castleton men’s and women’s hockey teams and the aspiring little hockey players was something to see.
“The college players grew up playing Pee Wee hockey. They understand the importance of it,” Sinclair said. “They work very well with the kids.
“They make it fun for the kids. Our only rule is that there is no crying on the ice.”
“If you can get them smiling, they probably are going to come back,” Castleton women’s coach Tim McAuliffe said.
Some of the Little Bruins had never been on skates before arriving for the first session.
The first of the four one-hour practices, for many of these novices, can be simply about learning how to put on hockey equipment and how to skate by holding onto crates as they attempt to glide across the ice.
“It is amazing how quickly these kids pick up hockey,” Sinclair said. “Some of them have never skated. That’s not a requirement.”
“When Kyle and I heard about this, it was kind of a no-brainer,” McAuliffe said. “Getting the kids involved in the game is so important.”
McAuliffe grew up in Boston, Richards in Nova Scotia, both hockey hotbeds.
“Seeing the game being grown in this area is awesome,” McAuliffe said.
The first “Little NHL” program began in 2008 and was initiated by Pittsburgh Penguins great Sidney Crosby.
Other teams picked up the concept including the Boston Bruins in 2014.
When Richards was the head coach of the University of Alabama club team, he was exposed to the Little Predators.
The teams try to send NHL alumni to some of the areas. Former Boston Bruins star Rick Middleton, a three-time NHL All-Star selection and Lady Byng Trophy winner, came to Spartan Arena last month.
“It is exciting having an NHL player there. There were photo ops with the kids,” Sinclair said. “We were lucky to have him.”
The testament to the Rutland area’s newest little hockey players having a great experience is that 80 percent of them made the transition into RAHA this year, said Sinclair.
Forty-six boys and girls participated in the Little Bruins program.
Having the Castleton players involved with the program made it possible to offer the little skaters a lot of individual attention. They were able to have one coach for every two-to-four youth players each week.
McAuliffe pointed out that having a little girl build a relationship with one of his players through the program is a special part of it all.
“When a little girl is being taught by a 19-or-20-year old woman and then sees her play against Norwich, it means something,” McAuliffe said.
“It is the same with a boy getting to know one of the players and then seeing him play in the same rink on the same sheet.”
“Some of our players probably had more fun than the kids,” Richards said.
Sidney Crosby was often referred to as “The Next One.”
When he started this program 13 years ago, he was launching something that had the potential to produce other “Next Ones.”
But whether great hockey players come out of Spartan Arena as the result of The Little Bruins or not, there are a lot of kids who had a great time and made a memory for a lifetime.
“Everyone had a ball,” McAuliffe said.
The big kids and the little ones.