HISTORY OF THE SAN DIEGO DISTRICT HOCKEY LEAGUE
Identifying the need for change
Before District Hockey was established, there were two types of youth programs available to middle school and high school aged kids who wanted to play ice hockey. The first was travel hockey, which was comprised of elite club teams. Travel hockey cost families several thousand dollars per season and required extensive time commitments. It also did not come with a guarantee that all who were interested could play as it required interested players to tryout in order to make a team. Given the expense, the time commitment required, and the need for tryouts, travel hockey clubs were not a feasible option for many families.
Unfortunately, the only other option, rink-based in-house programs, did not provide an attractive alternative. In the fall season of 2012, there were only three bantam (14 and under) teams and two midget (18 and under) teams in all of San Diego County. These teams had small rosters and played each other all the time. For families involved with in-house, families who were enthusiastic about hockey, it was a very disappointing situation.
District Hockey as it now exists began with early discussions about what could be done to help these kids on bantam and midget in-house teams.
The primary questions early on were “How can we get more kids playing hockey in the bantam and midget age groups?” and “How do we go from 8-10 peewee teams to 2-3 bantam and midget teams?”
Looking outside of hockey, we found that 11-15 is the age range that people tend to explore less traditional sports (water polo, track, lacrosse, etc.) and a time when kids become more independent and follow their peer group.
However, for this same age group the numbers of kids playing hockey in our area had been declining. The main reason for this decline was the introduction of checking at the bantam level. Many of the kids who were new to hockey were required immediately, or soon after starting, to play full-check games. This was a significant factor driving players away from hockey between the peewee and bantam levels. More experienced players were also driven out of in-house leagues due to conflicts with travel hockey schedules. In addition, many of the kids who were left found that much of their peer group had disappeared and chose to leave the in-house leagues as well.
The strategy to attract players in the 11-15 age group consisted in removing the push factors driving people away while drawing on the tendency of kids to follow their peers when trying new activities. The core elements of the emerging District Hockey League, thus, included the following components:
- Community-based, peer-based organization: Kids would play for the same school or district and recruit their classmates and neighborhood friends to come play too.
- Opportunity for checking and non-checking divisions: The league would offer middle school and high school junior varsity divisions as non-check but would include a full-check high school varsity division. This would allow kids to play non-check through high school while providing an opportunity for them to progress up to full-check should they feel comfortable.
- Combination roller and ice: Roller teams would require less initial investment for new players and would operate both as a fun and exciting activity in its own right and as a bridge to ice hockey once kids met new people and became more experienced.
- Flexible scheduling: The league would be scheduled to allow players to play on both roller and ice teams simultaneously. For those who would not want to play as often, each team would have one practice and one game per week, so it would not require too much commitment on the part of busy families. In addition, the schedule would reduce the conflict with the travel league so that these players would have the opportunity to have fun playing with their friends and classmates as well.
Building and growing the league
District Hockey launched in the fall of 2013 with four districts (North, South, East, and West) and ten ice hockey teams (four middle school and six high school). That number was double the number of in-house teams offered the previous fall. In addition to these regular-season teams, the league hosted 14U and 12U tournament teams for Thanksgiving and Memorial Day tournaments. From the beginning, the league also strived to add value to the playing experience by outfitting players with nice jerseys, playing music during events, making announcements during the games, keeping accurate stats, and offering playoffs and championships.
The league continued to grow in the summer of 2014 with the addition of an additional district (Central), an influx of travel players, and the inaugural roller hockey season. The ice hockey season fielded a staggering nineteen team (seven varsity, four junior varsity, and eight middle school), and the first roller season boasted sixteen teams (eight high school and eight middle school) as well as four 10U teams. The roller 14U SD Selects took gold at the Jr. Olympics in the 14AA division, and the league fielded ice hockey tournament teams over Labor Day Weekend in the Bantam A, Bantam B, and Midget 16A divisions. As predicted, many players in the league played both roller and ice, and the kids themselves were driving growth by inviting their friends to come play.
The current ice season is up to fourteen teams, a nearly three-fold increase from the 2012 fall in-house season, and the roller pre-season, which is expected to double for the November season, is up to twenty-two teams (seven varsity, five junior varsity, seven middle school, and three 10U). Once again, the league also plans to offer tournament teams as well as an elite varsity team to play high-level exhibition games for a fraction of the cost of travel hockey.
In general, the response from the community to the establishment of District Hockey has been overwhelming. A District game is an event: When you show up to a District game, you will see lots of people you know standing around the rink or sitting in the stands; you will hear music and announcements; and you will see kids everywhere having fun before, during, and after the game. We believe that the fun, excitement, and sense of belonging generated by District Hockey will help ensure its continued success into the future.