Learn to Play Rookie Program Brings Back Memories for Flyers Alumni

Legendary Flyers coach Fred Shero was fond of saying that professional ice hockey is a children’s game played by grown men. It is important to never lose the joy of putting on the skates and equipment and then ritually stepping onto a fresh sheet of ice to experience the wonder – the simultaneous familiarity and unpredictability – of the sport. The lessons learned, and skills acquired on the rink in childhood end up becoming the most lasting ones regardless of the level in which a youngster ultimately plays.


For the second straight year, the Philadelphia Flyers are participating in the Learn to Play Rookie Program initiative jointly started leaguewide by the National Hockey League and NHL Players’ Association in all 31 NHL markets.  The program provides free head-to-toe hockey equipment and high-quality instruction for young first-time players (ages 5 to 9).


Last year, the Flyers version of the program was held on nine rinks around the Delaware Valley. This year, the number of participating rinks has expanded to 12. To date, more than 700 kids have signed up for the Rookie Program. By the time the program ends in April, the Flyers anticipate about 1,200 participants.


“We expect to finish in the top two or three of NHL organizations in terms of registration numbers,” notes Rob Baer, the Flyers Youth and Amateur Hockey Manager.


Some of the program’s local success is due to the widespread popularity of the Flyers and the NHL in the region. Just as important, however, is the allure of the sport itself and the way the program is structured to make feasible something that otherwise would be a expensive family financial commitment on even the grassroots level of providing their children with a chance to try out the game and see if they like it.


An added feature of interest: Two Flyers Alumni players, Brad Marsh and Riley Cote, have served as special instructors for the Rookie Program this year. For both men, their participation has brought them back in touch with memories of their own discovery of the game as youngsters.


“The kids have a great time, but so do we,” said Marsh, who has made eight on-ice instructional appearances since September. “The kids are so enthusiastic and eager to get out and learn. The response and feedback from the parents has been tremendous, too.”


A veteran of 1,086 regular season games and 97 Stanley Cup playoff games in the NHL, Marsh today serves as the president of the Flyers Alumni Association and as the Flyers Director of Community Development.  While teaching the fundamentals of the game is important, he equally stresses the qualities that it takes to be successful in both the game of hockey and the game of life.


“When I talk to kids or to adults, the focus is simply ‘Work Hard, Do Your Best, Have Fun,’ which reflects my own credo,” Marsh said. “I’ve been an instructor in a lot of hockey clinics over the years, and worked with both younger and older kids as well as adults. Each age has its own rewards and challenges. The youngest group – the Rookie Program age kids – are great because kids at that age have a love of discovery. Being out there with them kinds of takes me back to when I was their age.”


Cote has made 13 on-ice instructional appearances for the Learn to Play Rookie Program since September. At age 35 and the father of a young daughter, he is not far removed from his own active involvement in playing and coaching in the pros.


A native of Winnipeg, Cote played in 156 NHL games for the Flyers and won a Calder Cup in the American Hockey League with the Philadelphia Phantoms, served as an AHL assistant coach with the Adirondack/ Lehigh Valley Phantoms from the 2010-11 until the 2016-17 season. While he enjoyed his own playing days as one of the NHL’s fraternity of tough guys and likewise had good experiences in coaching pros with the Phantoms, he said that nothing quite compares to the rewards of sharing his own passion for the game with kids, and seeing their own love of the game blossom.


“The time flies by when I’m on the ice with the kids,” Cote said. “The parents often thank me for coming out and tell me they saw me play. I tell them that the pleasure is mine to be there and thank them for the fun of working with their kids. It’s great.”


What does the future hold for the Learn to Play Rookie Program? Marsh believes the program will only continue to grow in participation. He also believes it is inevitable that, someday, a few kids who got their start in Learn to Play will eventually make it to the National Hockey League.


“When you look at the way hockey participation has expanded, especially across the U.S., and the way this program has started to take off, that’s a strong starting point. Then take those early numbers out over a number of years and figure that the program will introduce the game to more and more kids each season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if, someday, a few of these kids stick with the game and a couple play major junior, college or even pro,” Marsh said.


 “There’s a lot of youth hockey programs in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve seen instructors of a wide array of ability levels: really, not all that different from classroom teachers. I must say that the Learn to Play Rookie instruction is good at building that early foundation. If someday there’s a pro player from the Flyers Learn to Play and I can look at him and say, ‘Wow, I remember when I was on the ice with him when he was just a kid,’ I would get a huge charge of that. But that’s not the purpose of the program.”


The next Learn to Play Rookie sessions begin in January. For more information on the program, participating rinks and to register your child for the program, click here.