The street-hockey players, ages 3 to 9, were oblivious that they were getting instruction Wednesday night from a player, former Flyer Bob Kelly, who was a hero in a long-ago Stanley Cup Final, or that, during one of their fun drills, they were trying to take the ball away from Brad Marsh, a man who spent seven of his 15 NHL seasons in Philadelphia.
They were more thrilled — based on their shrieks of laughter — to be chasing Gritty around the rink.
On a sweltering night, the Great Gritty Chase took place just before the 100 players had a graduating ceremony at the Gloucester Township Hockey Alliance Complex in Blackwood.
The Flyers are trying to grow their fan base to include more youngsters — some as tall as a step ladder — in South Jersey. Over the last six weeks, a total of 400 children (100 at each location) participated in the Flyers’ new “Learn to Play” ball-hockey program at rinks in Blackwood, Bellmawr, Marlton, and Maple Shade.
The program includes drills and games for boys and girls, and it concluded Wednesday night in the Blackwood section of Gloucester Township, where the Flyers’ brand was displayed at the state-of-the-art complex.
“Nothing like when I was a kid,” said Marsh, a Flyers community development director who played a big role in assisting the kids in the program. “We’d play in the street, and if you had a buddy who lived in a cul-de-sac, it was a bonus.”
This was the first year for the Flyers-sponsored ball-hockey program, which started May 15.
Two years ago, Joe Tully from the Gloucester Township Hockey Alliance approached Marsh and Rob Baer, manager of the Flyers’ youth and amateur hockey department. Tully was trying to get the Flyers involved with their starting-to-sag program.
“They said their registration numbers were sliding and they wanted help in trying to stop that,” Baer said.
A seed was planted, and a grant from the NHL and the Players Association helped get things rolling. The Flyers provide sticks, balls, and pinnies at a nominal fee, and they had at least one of their former players — Kelly, Marsh, Riley Cote, and Todd Fedoruk — assisting players during the program.
The idea is to get the kids into hockey and into the Flyers.
“Partnering with our hometown NHL team is beyond exciting for everyone here,” said Bob Keefe, president of the Gloucester Township Hockey Alliance.
“We’re trying to grow the game,” Marsh said as he stood near the redesigned rink that was filled with signs showing the Flyers’ connection with the township’s program. “Put hockey sticks in kids’ hands and get them excited about hockey and the Flyers.”
And a googly-eyed mascot.
“The main thing is the kids are out there interacting and just having a good time,” said Joe Badolato, a Mullica Hill resident whose two young sons, Joseph and Alessio, took part in the program.
Baer said he hopes to expand the program next year from four locations to eight or nine and have nearly 1,000 children involved.
“And if the kids want to get into ice hockey later, great, but that’s not necessarily the goal here,” Baer said. “It’s to introduce the kids to the sport.”
Marsh said the Flyers are the first NHL team to hold a “Learn to Play” ball-hockey program; all NHL teams sponsor ice-hockey programs for youths, he added.