"My favorite time of year is Thanksgiving morning because I get together with all the kids I grew up playing hockey with," stated Craig Herwek. "We're on the ice, but it's not about the hockey game we're playing - it's about that moment of comradery with friends. Forty years later, we are still getting together."
"Hockey is such a unique sport," notes Craig. "Anyone can try to play soccer or baseball because everyone knows how to run. But not everyone knows how to skate. Many people never consider playing hockey because they don't know how to skate."
Craig, a lifelong Kirkwood guy, grew up playing in the Kirkwood Youth Hockey Association (KYHA) and now serves as the organization's president.
The KYHA was founded in 1968 by a group of men led by Bill McKenna and is one of the oldest hockey clubs in St. Louis. The organization's founders, community leaders who volunteer their time and talents, coaches, parents, even a few St. Louis Blues alumni help keep the organization going. "But at the end of the day," notes Steve Chapman, Executive Vice President, and Chief Revenue Officer at the St. Louis Blues, "You have to give credit to the kids who are out there playing. Without them, there is no youth hockey program."
We asked some of Kirkwood’s youngest players (six-years-old and younger) what they love about playing hockey. Maverick Ott said, “Taking the puck away and scoring goals,” Then he quickly added, “And I like to stop really fast and make the snow go up.” Conner Fox stated that he also liked shooting the puck. Will Ravensberg said his favorite thing about hockey is playing the games.
"When you have players out there having fun," said Craig, "other kids see that, and they want to be a part of it. And that is how our organization grows."
The organization has exploded in growth under the leadership of the past KYHA president Steve Williamson and of former coaching director John Luetkemeyer. “One of my proudest accomplishments is achieving Model Association status by USA hockey,” said John. “Which means that even if you don’t know anything about hockey, you know your kids are in good hands in this program,” he explained.
Craig said his vision for the Kirkwood Youth Hockey program is to maintain the legacy that started in 1968. "It's not about pushing kids to the next level," he said. "It's about having fun."
The program has grown from around 300 players in 2015 to over 700 players on the roster this year. Craig said, "If a kid wants to play hockey, we'll do whatever we can to find a spot for him or her to play."
For Craig, hockey is not just a sport - it's a lifestyle.
"There are life lessons learned in the locker room," Craig stated. "Winning is fun but developing young players to become better people when they come out of hockey is much more important."
KYHA parents and board created seven core coaching values. Developing potential over wins, positive coaching over pressure, and creativity over conformity are part of the values instilled in the coaching team. Those values drive KYHA's mission of keeping youth hockey awesome, inspiring a lifelong love of the game.
Love for the game of hockey has grown with the success of the St. Louis Blues. And while the Blues are celebrated for winning the Stanley Cup, they celebrate youth hockey.
"We are a support mechanism and a megaphone for youth hockey," stated Steve. "Our (St. Louis Blues) job is to support these organizations and to create programs that help get kids on the ice. Some of those kids may go on to play hockey at an advanced level. Certainly, most of those kids will develop a love for the game that will stay with them for the rest of their lives."
"We are all stewards of the Blues and of the game of hockey," said Steve. "Our goal is to ensure that what we are doing today to help build the game, build the Blues and promote St. Louis will live on forever."
St. Louis Blues sponsored youth hockey feeder programs like Little Blues and Try Hockey for Free allow kids ages 4 - 9 to experience hockey for the first time. The Little Blues program includes a complete set of hockey equipment, six on-ice practices, and a graduation ceremony. Since it is highly recommended that kids know how to skate before registering for the Little Blues, the Try Hockey for Free program provides kids everything they need from head to toe to learn the fundamentals of hockey, including skating, stickhandling, and shooting.
Upon graduation from the Little Blues, kids that live in KYHA's designated zip codes -determined by the Missouri Hockey League - are invited to join the program.
KYHA's Mini Mite and Mite coaching team take it from there.
The 6U coaching team of Coach Fox, Coach Bill Ravensberg, Coach Wes Gale, and Coach Joe Vitale understand and, more importantly, are excited about their impact on the kids. Coach Jordan Fox explained, "We are the kids' first experience with club hockey. Our jobs as coaches are the most important because if kids don't like it, they are never going to play again."
"This year 120 kids signed up for 6U, and 50 parents volunteered to coach," said Coach Fox. "A lot of these parents have never played hockey before. So, they are learning to skate along with their kids. They don't want to sit on the sidelines and watch their kids. They want to enjoy the game with them. We are fortunate as a community to have great leaders who want to give back."
"We're really lucky to have coaches like Jordan Fox, Bill Ravensburg, Wes Gale, and Joe Vitale, who all played hockey at a higher level," said Coach Steve Ott, Assistant Coach for the St. Louis Blues. "There are countless coaches and volunteers involved in KYHA, but this group of Mini Mite and Mite coaches are the reason why the program continues to grow."
"They set the foundation for a lifelong love for the game," stated Coach Ott. "Since I'm not at the Kirkwood hockey rink all the time, I feel good about having these men coach my son, Maverick. I trust these men to teach my son the respect, the talent, and the fun of the game. I know my son is in great hands."
"The thing I love about coaching is the smile on their faces on and off the ice," said Coach Fox. "It's so rewarding to watch the kids improve as they are having fun. It's crazy how fast they progress. We had a player last year named Ezra who could barely walk on the ice, and this year he is out there flying."
"If you have young kids, get them involved," advises Coach Fox. "As confidence builders teaching maturity and respect, these coaches are outstanding leaders and mentors for your children."
Coach Fox smiled and said, "Our number one goal is that each time the kids leave the rink, they can't wait to come back.