In Filling the Empty Space,  I talked about the soon-to-be-opened McKendree University Metro Rec Plex in O’Fallon, IL and the strategies they’re employing to get this brand new, multi-sport facility booked. In that post, I mentioned the minor hockey club that will be playing out of that facility, the Southern Illinois Ice Hawks and their plans for rebuilding their club. Because the club needs to be rebuilt.

Rebuilding a Minor Hockey Club

Tragedy struck four years ago leaving the club without home ice of their own. Without a neighborhood arena to call their own — and the ensuing continuous commutes for games and practices — the names on their rosters began to erode.

But the opening of the Metro Rec Plex gives an opportunity for the Ice Hawks to breathe new life into their organization. Ice Hawks President, Dave Nappier and his Board have a vision – an aggressive vision – to take their current roster of just under 125 and build it up to 500 — by 2020.

Five Hundred Players – by 2020

Five hundred players? In four years? I can see your eyes opening wide to the sound of those numbers – especially those of you who understand the kind of competitive sports market there is in O’Fallon (where there are at least half a dozen different team sports vying for each available player – and their parents’ disposable income). Here’s an outline of what they’re already doing, and what they have planned to get them there.

1.  Floor Hockey

When you don’t have ice, floor hockey is the best way to introduce new players to hockey and that’s something the Ice Hawks have taken to heart. In five different K-4 elementary schools in the SIIH’s district, the Ice Hawks have been setting up floor hockey programs, introducing the school kids to how the great game of hockey is played. The Ice Hawks hope that once the new arena opens in December, there will be demand from those floor hockey players to come to the arena-run Learn to Skate sessions — where Ice Hawks coaches and players will assist the soon-to-be-hired Director of Skating — helping first-time skaters find their balance and give them confidence with blades on ice.

2. Learn to Play

As any minor hockey club knows, Learn-to-Play is a natural progression froLearn-to-Skate, but the Ice Hawks are aware that equipment and ice time fees may be a barrier to bringing in new members. So they’re going to recycle as much equipment they can from older players — especially for the Mini-Mites — the club’s youngest players. Keeping the costs down will also help them compete against the other sports organizations in the community, making hockey an attractive option. They’ll also be getting help from the St. Louis Blues with a community outreach program that gives 4 to 8-year-olds a total of six ice sessions and a full set of gear for $100 – a tremendous boost that will certainly help grow the club.

3. Short Sessions

Next, the SIIH’s board have thought a lot about the pull those other local sports organizations have. So, to get a slice of the pie, they’ll be creating short sessions that won’t go head-to-head against those other sports as much as possible. It’s the board’s hope that by offering hockey in short, non-conflicting windows, the Ice Hawks will be able to introduce more players to hockey — at reasonable prices — giving them a taste of the fastest game on earth, whetting their appetite for more. Nappier is convinced the Ice Hawks will be able to keep them once they’ve seen there’s no other game like hockey.

4. Play at Home

Instead of the main focus being on travel teams, which the old Ice Hawks club did before their membership deteriorated, these short sessions will have intramural games – played between Ice Hawks teams, at home, with a target of between 40-50 kids per session. Nappier says that will be done with the help of corporate-sponsored jerseys and socks, which will also be passed on to the players from session to session — another cost-reducing solution that lessens the financial burden for parents and keeps the travel to a minimum. As a bonus, the Metro Rec Plex has so many different activities that parents can do something else while practices or games are going on (or waiting for the game to start) like swimming, aerobics, weights — or just using the walking tracks — all at reasonable drop-in or monthly fees.

5. Find Good Players for the Travel Teams

Through all of this, the Ice Hawks will have their eyes peeled for talent they can encourage for their different travel teams, if that’s what the child and his or her parents want. Travel teams mean exactly that: travel needs to be done to play against other teams, and a couple of away tournaments is usually on the cards for any travel team each season. Travel Teams = Money and that’s an equation the Ice Hawks are extremely conscious of in building the organization back up again. So sourcing players for the travel teams will be a second consideration. The first priority will be building the club back up.

Ice Hawks

Dave Nappier and Art Stutsman, coaching an Ice Hawks team.

Nappier says by the start of the 2018 season, they should have 225 players — just 105 short of the number they had on their roster when the arena in Fairview Heights was a victim of mine subsidence in 2012. All of those players will be USA Hockey members, but perhaps only half of will be members of travel teams.

The Ice Hawks have a steep road ahead. But with a Board of Directors conscious of the challenges they have, and a home facility that’s more than happy to work with them to help develop the club, their plans look solid.

As for intramural hockey, well that might catch on like wildfire. As a hockey mom, the Metro Rec Plex is a venue I’d love to be hanging out at, with other hockey moms — without the uselessness of travel. I can see us now, walking around the track together, talking about our kids, work, hockey and, of course, the Blues (like who misses David Backes the most)… What fun would that be?

It would be great…