Minnesota Hockey Journal

March 2023

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Page 18 of 33

For those new to the game, Armstrong Cooper's Learn to Skate program is a great place to start. "I really believe that helped lessen the stress involved with starting hockey," Thul said. "It gives them four sessions to get used to the game and the equipment, so they're not just thrown into practice." The association provides equipment to kids for their first three years, which also helps ease barriers. "That's another way I think we try to prepare our younger families," Berndt said. "We help them understand everything from equipment to what all this means—the com- munity. When they build that community, I think that's when they see the real value." OPENING NEW DOORS Despite successful recruitment and player retention through the years, Thul always has the same question on his mind. "How do we open the game to more families that are not from traditional hockey families or traditional hockey culture?" he asked. Thul knows that's a daunting ques- tion—and he doesn't have an answer right now—but he knows he wants to help be a part of the solution. " We're not any farther ahead than the rest of Minnesota on that," Thul said. "I think there are a lot of kids in our com- munities that would love to play the game, but we are not quite able to get them through the door, or get them to stay if they do come through our door. I know there are a lot of people within Minnesota Hockey working on this, too." In the meantime, Armstrong Cooper is mak- ing sure to welcome everyone with open arms. "We've always believed that we want Armstrong Cooper to be a place where fam- ilies feel welcomed, they feel taken care of, and they feel like no matter how good their child is at hockey, we're going to do our best for them," Thul said. "I think that has served us pretty well. We're certainly not perfect, but we're doing our best." BUILDING CHARACTER When Armstrong Cooper took a good look at its culture a few years back, it devel- oped an acronym for its nickname. WINGS stands for: Work Hard, Integrity, No Excuses, Gratitude and Success for All. "I think that was a good way for us to ground our coaches in a common belief sys- tem, and we continue to work on that every day," Thul said. "We want kids to learn the life skills that sports are supposed to teach—from dealing with conflict, to being part of a team, to the discipline required to train and participate in athletics." The association wants its members to thrive in the classroom, too, through the Skaters Keep Achieving Through Education program. S.K.A.T.E. was started in the Armstrong Hockey Association in 1993 by hockey moms Merilee Reilly and Lynn Leopold, Jordan Leopold's mother. It's available to every youth hockey organization under Minnesota Hockey. "They felt that they really needed to emphasize not only the sport of hockey, but continue to keep top of mind that these kids are first and foremost students," Berndt said. The program encourages students to maintain a minimum GPA throughout the season, and set aside time to study. Students are rewarded at the end of the season with a celebration and certificates. CARING COMMUNITY Armstrong Cooper knows it wouldn't be where it is today without a strong foundation. "Community-based hockey is about giv- ing more than you take, and we couldn't do without our membership," Thul said. "Whether it's a team manager, a volunteer, a coach or the people running the concession stands—you don't run a youth organization the size of ours without hundreds of people doing way more than what's expected of them and doing it because they love it, not because they have to do it." Armstrong Cooper serves kids from five different areas—including Golden Valley, Crystal, Plymouth, Robbinsdale and New Hope—and feels fortunate to have a strong support system. "The Minnesota advantage in developing hockey players is truly community-based, and the city of New Hope is a wonderful partner," Thul said. "They go above and beyond to make sure that they're doing their part so we have a home, and we are deeply appreciative of that. "It doesn't get done in Minnesota the way it does without cities stepping up and tak- ing care of their families and kids." M A R C H 2 0 2 3 | M H J ON L I N E . C O M 19 Armstrong Cooper has a history of developing Olympians: Paul Jensen and Steve Jensen (1976); Dave Jensen (1984); Travis Richards (1994); Jordan Leopold (2006); and Kelly Pannek (2018, 2022).

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