The Boston Bruins Academy sponsors a “Learn to Play” program throughout the New England area, which encourages and supports families to give hockey a shot.

In Brookline, the program has been a huge hit, with 68-70 children between the ages of 7 and 10 waking up early Saturday mornings to learn how to play hockey and have fun on the ice.

Under the guidance of organizer, Richie Sheridan, a lifelong hockey player and hockey enthusiast, Brookline Youth Hockey has had two of their four practices so far this season. They even managed to get former Bruins’ goalie and National Hockey League rookie of the year, Andrew Raycroft, to attend their third practice at Boston University this past Saturday.

“It’s really an NHL initiative [these] last two years,” Raycroft said during a practice. “Every team in the NHL is doing this for their area, just to get people out there playing hockey that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to come out.” Raycroft had a busy schedule the day of this interview. The former Bruins player was scheduled to attend another Learn to Play program in Foxboro alongside other NHL veterans.

As part of the Learn to Play program, the Boston Bruins partners with hockey sporting good store, CCM, to subsidize the cost of equipment.

Hockey is a sport that requires a lot of equipment – skates, padding, helmets, and hockey sticks add up. At such a young age, children inevitably grow out of their gear, so it’s an expense that carries over season to season and often deters families from enrolling their children in the sport.

For $100, Brookline Youth Hockey players receive full equipment from helmet to skates, including a Bruins shirt and bag plus four practices where they can learn to play from dedicated coaches.

BYH goes even further to accommodate families who still can’t afford the discounted price by providing scholarships. “Our goal is really to continue to make this accessible for all families,” Richie says.

The program doesn’t turn any child away based on their skating ability or how much hockey experience they have, “Though the program is meant to be a ‘learn to play,’ we do get a lot of learn to skate,” Richie continues, “I think skating ability tends to dictate success. If you can skate at any level, you’re welcome to come out.”

Richie Sheridan’s been involved with the program for over four years. He really enjoys seeing the progress each player makes from week to week. “Watching them [skate] from point A to Point B without falling and when you see some real light bulbs go on, and they say, ‘I get it!’ It’s amazing,” he said. “This it is a very resilient age group.”

Above the rink at Boston University, the stands are filled with parents, eager to support their little “ice mice,” as the league is called.

Richie encourages them to start recording their child’s lessons at BYH from day one in October, guaranteeing that by February, they’re going to be blown away by how much they will have improved. “You won’t remember that they were once like a baby giraffe sliding all over the ice.”

Brookline Youth Hockey’s coaches are all volunteer — parents of kids in the program or high school hockey players from the neighboring schools – and their community service takes place on and off the ice.

Last winter, Ardani Mello-Daigneault, a high school volunteer coach from Brookline High School, organized a snow shoveling day throughout the neighborhood with some of the other teenage volunteers. They put on their game jerseys and went door to door offering to shovel sidewalks, driveways, or stairs around Brookline.

For Mello-Daigneault, volunteering for Brookline Youth Hockey brings back memories of when he first learned to play.

At 12 years old, he was by far the oldest kid on the ice. “ I couldn’t skate, “ Mello-Daigneault confessed, “ I was barely holding on to the walls. I was playing with seven and eight-year-olds – a 12-year-old playing with these really small kids, I [would] always get the looks from the parents.”

But Mello-Daigneault’s late beginnings didn’t diminish his spirit or drive. He stuck with the sport – practicing on his own and in BYH, Now, six years later, he plays varsity hockey on his high school team.

“Ardani is a special case,” Richie says, his face lighting up as he starts talking about one of his favorite volunteers. He helped out with our Learn to Play program for more than four years, almost as long as Richie himself. “He’s at the point where he is one of the lead coaches,” Richie continues, “so I see a future with him. We give him opportunities to be in front and take the lead role.”

Mello-Daigneault’s advice for kids starting to learn the game? “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You never know what’s going to happen.”

By Sophia Marie