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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 10 months ago

RDV Sportsplex Ice Den teaches life skills through hockey

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The facility in Maitland is growing the game of hockey – and the youth who play it – in Central Florida.
by: Tim Freed Associate Editor

Ready to lace ‘em up and be the next Wayne Gretzky?

Some may think you have to live up north to play a game of hockey, but the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den in Maitland has everything you need to start scoring goals or making glove saves.

A new year means a new season of hockey-related classes and leagues at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den, with something for everyone ages 3 to adult.

It all starts with the facility’s Learn to Skate program, which starts for children at age 3. Students learn how to skate forward and backward and how to stop. Once someone has the basics, he or she is transitioned into the Learn to Play program, which teaches the game’s basic fundamentals, including stick-handling, passing and shooting.

But there’s also six free Try Ice Hockey events where children ages 4 to 12 can get on the ice with skates, sticks, gloves and helmets to see if it’s something they enjoy.

“It’s a great way to introduce kids and families to the sport,” Director of Operations Debby Kwasman said. “As a mom, you want to make sure they’re committed to doing it before you invest in the equipment. We do those frequently in order to give families the opportunity to see if they like it.”

LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Players are able to take the skills they’ve learned and apply them in a scrimmage situation with the Youth Rookie League, a developmental league for players 10-and-under through 18-and-under with less than two years of house league experience.

“That became our bridge program between our Learn to Play and our House League program,” Hockey Manager Doug Wemple said. “The kids will go into the Youth Rookie League, and when the coaches feel they’re ready, then they advance into our House League program.”

The RDV Sportsplex offers leagues for players ages 8 through 18. Players get to be a part of a fun and competitive atmosphere, with weekday practices and weekend games with USA Hockey certified coaches and referees.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

For players looking to hone their skills outside of league setting, there’s plenty of options, Wemple said.

Skate and Shoots for youth and adults give players a chance to practice fundamentals in an open, free play setting. There are clinics for power skating and other skills as well at varied times throughout the year, and private lessons are also available upon request for skaters and goalies.

When the summer comes, that’s when the camps start up, Wemple said. The facility hosts both an RDV Sportsplex Ice Den Hockey Camp and an Orlando Solar Bears Hockey Camp, where players ages 4 to 18 get to learn from professional players and coaches.

Adult players who are new to the game can either attend the Learn to Skate program or they can join a public skating session and learn on their own.

There’s a Learn to Play for adults as well, who then can transition into adult house leagues. The levels of skill range from the Rookie league for all new players that are learning the game all the way to the WAHL league for former pro, junior and college players.

A league for players age 35 and older is available as well, and last January RDV started an all-girls program with a 12-and-under team and a 15-and-under team.

“We were the first facility in the history of hockey in Florida to have two all-girls teams playing in our in-house program,” Wemple said. “I think over the next couple seasons here we’ll see that we have a 10U all-girls team as well. ”

Wemple arrived at RDV in May 2014, relocating from Grand Rapids, Michigan. When Wemple first arrived, the facility had about 250 kids in the leagues on an annual basis. That number has since grown to more than 600 kids in 2017.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth over the last three years,” Wemple said. “My motto, I guess if you will, that I brought here has always been, ‘It’s more than just hockey.’ For me, we’re not just focusing on making kids better hockey players, we’re focused on what we do here on making them better individuals in society. … Parents have told me over and over again that they love the culture that we have here that we’ve instilled, making sure these kids are learning to be respectful of one another and behave well. They’re learning important life skills, more than they’re learning to stick-handle a puck.”

Wemple also credited some of the recent growth in participation to the Orlando Solar Bears ECHL hockey team, which returned to the Orlando area in 2012 after the IHL folded in 2001.

“I get lots of people who give me phone calls and emails that say, ‘Hey, I took my child to a Solar Bears game — they have no idea how to skate, but they want to play hockey,’” Wemple said. “They’ve definitely helped bring that awareness back to the area for the game.”

Kwasman, who has been with RDV since it opened about 20 years ago, said she’s seen the game of hockey grow in the area as well. The participation has increased over time, but there are still players that have played every weekend since the facility first opened its doors. 

It’s like a family, Kwasman said, and it’s only continuing to grow.

“It’s been exciting to watch the evolution of it,” she said.

Tim Freed is an Associate Editor with the Winter Park/Maitland Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.

See All Articles by Tim

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