As dwindling public resources chip away at parks programs everywhere, Langford Park Hockey grows stronger by the season, this year expanding to add a Bantam-level team for 13- and 14-year-olds.
About 70 players registered two years ago, said parent and Langford hockey coach Scott Hamilton. Last year there were about 90 and this year they’ll have at least 105, he said.
“I’m pretty sure that we’ve grown by at least five players a year for the last eight years or so,” Hamilton said.
No longer a St. Paul Parks and Recreation team, Langford Park Hockey is now independent but plays under the authority of Minnesota Hockey, District 1, along with Edgcumbe, the other remaining recreation-center-based team in St. Paul.
Coaches and managers also schedule with District 8, which includes the Johnson Como program that draws players from both the St. Anthony Park and Como Park neighborhoods.
Langford distinguishes itself by using outdoor ice for practice, which enables the team to get by with significantly lower participation fees, and by emphasizing play over competition, requiring fewer practices than many teams and allowing absences.
“We understand that families are busy with school and other activities,” Hamilton said. “We try to limit practices to two weeknights.”
Langford recognizes that families may need to miss practice now and then, he said. “I’ve heard that some programs penalize kids for not making a game or practice by having them sit out game time. We try not to do that.”
While Langford is seeing a boost in its program, not all hockey programs around the city are experiencing enrollment growth. Increased demands on time combined with higher fees may account for the declining interest in other teams in recent years, according to parent and Langford assistant coach Mark Lundquist.
Hockey participation at public high schools has dropped off, too, Lundquist said, prompting rumors that St. Paul Public Schools will soon be down to one city-wide team.
One reason Lundquist likes Langford is that there are no team try-outs, which means there’s no pressure for a child to take up the game until he or she is ready. Lundquist’s oldest son didn’t join until third grade, he said.
“He was already two or three years behind the skill level of others on his team,” Lundquist said. “But Sam ended up loving the game, and he gained his passion for the game by playing at [Langford] with his best friends.”
Lundquist said all the players learn and improve together and get equal time regardless of skill level, which he said is often not the case in more competitive programs. Weaker players can make those teams, then be disappointed at the amount of time they spend on the bench, he said.
Fees to play in the Langford program range from $155 for the youngest players, up to $525 for Bantams. In the middle, Langford Squirts (ages 9-10) pay $425. The hockey season begins in October and can run through February.
Not all teams post their fees online, but a program in South St. Paul lists $777 for Squirts, which includes a “volunteer fee,” refundable after 10 hours of duty; Bantams are listed at $1,086 and also includes that fee.
As in any other hockey program, Langford parents must also pony up for equipment (much of which can be found used), shuttle kids to games, and find time for volunteer organizing and fundraising.
Langford hockey parents have another responsibility: grooming the Langford Park ice rink. The city puts up the boards around the rink and floods it about once a month, Lundquist said. But neighborhood volunteers do the rest, mostly parents of hockey players who sign up for a weekly rotation.
Lundquist said the organizers try to sign up six or seven volunteers each weeknight for 9-11 p.m. shifts to remove snow and flood the rink. Despite the hard work, “it’s a neat get-together,” he said.
All that volunteering, adds up to big savings. Ice time at the indoor arenas used by most teams for practice-and used by Langford teams for most games-costs about $160 per hour, which accounts for the lower fees to play at Langford, Lundquist said.
Langford Park Hockey gets support from the Langford Booster Club, including access to insurance.
While most Langford games are played at indoor rinks outside the neighborhood, Langford Park Hockey does host a Winter Classic, at which neighbors can watch the action and sample the chili, hot chocolate and other treats at the fundraising lunch inside. This season’s event will be Jan. 6-9.
Hamilton said he and other coaches have been talking with soccer coaches at Langford about a new approach.
“The hockey program has been such a success,” he said, “the Booster Club is going to sponsor a competitive soccer team next fall that mirrors the approach taken with the hockey program.”
At press time, Hamilton received word that the club’s application had been approved by the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association.
Anne Holzman is a freelance writer who lives in St. Anthony Park.