For ice-loving Ashburn siblings Dylan, Keelyn and Brennyn Anderson, learning to skate was like learning to walk, and the rink is a second home.
They are among a growing number of Loudoun kids who are getting into ice hockey, mirroring a national trend that’s been fueled by the expansion of the National Hockey League. A 2017 Aspen Institute study showed that ice hockey is one of only three youth sports that increased participation between 2008 and 2017, with a 60 percent rise in participation during that time.
Locally, interest has grown thanks in part to a wide range of programming at the Ashburn Ice House, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. And skaters will have more options than ever this spring, with the opening of the new Ion International Training Center in Leesburg.
Ashburn Ice House General Manager Rob Lorenzen, a former collegiate hockey player, hits the ice several times a week to work with the rink’s youngest hockey enthusiasts in the Mini Mite house league for skaters 6 and younger.
“What’s most gratifying in teaching the young kids is to see the confidence that they gain. … Once they’ve mastered the skating, they get a skill that a lot of their friends can’t do, and the confidence that it brings to them on and off the ice is amazing to see,” Lorenzen said.
For the past several years, Ashburn Ice House has been introducing young players to the sport through a program launched by the Washington Capitals and the NHL. The Future Caps Learn to Play program lets new players ages 5 to 9 try hockey without having to initially invest in equipment. The $215 fee includes eight weeks of instruction plus head-to-toe equipment, including skates they can keep.
“That initiative has sparked a lot of interest at a younger age which is very positive,” Lorenzen said. “It takes all that fear out of it for the parents and makes it easier for people to try it and get engaged in the game.”
To join the Future Caps program, children do need to know how to skate, so Lorenzen recommends one of the center’s most popular programs—the Learn to Skate class. Every winter 600 to 800 skaters between the ages of 4 and 13 get their start in Ashburn, Lorenzen said.
“That’s really where you have to start,” Lorenzen said. “Without those basic fundamentals of skating, you’re not going to have success in a hockey class that’s geared to teaching you the finer points of the game—puck handling, passing, shooting.”
One of Lorenzen’s young students, 5-year-old Harrison Gopal, started playing hockey at 4.
“I really like to go really fast,” said Harrison, who’s also a competitive swimmer.
After learning to skate, players can move on to hockey skills classes and out playing recreation league hockey. For players who develop their skills and want more, there are numerous select and travel teams based out of the rink, from elementary to high school age
For Josh and Debra Anderson, both avid skaters, proximity to the Ashburn Ice House was a factor in their decision to move to Ashburn in 2004, and all three of their children were on the ice by age 3 or 4. Now, 12-year-old Dylan and his 8-year-old sister Brennyn play on travel hockey teams, while middle sister Keelyn, 10, has moved from hockey to figure skating.
“It’s a family sport for us,” said Josh Anderson, who continues to play in an adult league.
Travel hockey is a big commitment in terms of time and money, but for Debra Anderson, a former figure skater, it’s worth it. The kids love it, she says, and travel for tournaments lets them spend time together as a family and see new things. A recent trip to Buffalo with Brennyn’s team allowed them to see a frozen Niagara Falls.
“We’ve had them in other things. They just sort of gravitate toward hockey,” she said.
“I like the fast-paced game and keeping up with your skills and having a good time,” said Dylan, a seventh-grader at Trailside Middle School, who plays for his school club team and a travel hockey for the Ashburn Xtreme hockey club. The chance to visit new places, the sense of camaraderie with teammates and getting to know players from other places also come into play.
“I like getting to meet new people and talk to people on and off the ice,” Dylan said.
Hockey is also one of a few team sports where kids often play co-ed up to and even in high school. Brennyn, a second grader at Belmont Station Elementary School, is the only girl on her team for now but doesn’t mind a bit.
“Throughout our 20 years, we continue to see young girls take to ice hockey and play right alongside of the boys,” Lorenzen said.
Advances in equipment have made the sport safer, Lorenzen added, giving parents a comfort level with the sport, and the exhilaration and sense of teamwork he loved as a young player are still there for a new generation.
“I think it’s the speed of the game and the camaraderie you form with your teammates. The speed of the game is fast and always moving,” Lorenzen said. “And the bond you form with your teammates is lasting.”