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The First Shift program, a learn-to-play initiative conceived by Bauer Hockey and Hockey Canada designed to welcome families new to the game, was accelerated when the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association agreed to a three-year partnership Wednesday. The venture will help expand outreach by utilizing the expertise of the seven NHL teams from Canada to present unique opportunities in their communities.

“It’s massively important for us to get more kids and families engaged in the game,” said Rob Zepp, manager, special projects for the NHLPA who made his NHL debut at 33 years old by making 25 saves for the Philadelphia Flyers in a 4-3 win at the Winnipeg Jets on Dec. 21, 2014. “For us, at the end of the day, that means active participation on the ice versus a different form of participation, whether it be ball hockey, street hockey, floor hockey, e-gaming. Any way that they can get interested in our sport, in the players, in the clubs, is great for us.”

It became great for Josie Palmateer after she discovered a program that uncovered a desire for her reluctant 6-year-old daughter, Ruby, to parlay her love of hockey into participation on the ice.

Hockey is in the Palmateer bloodline. Josie’s husband Danny Palmateer is a youth coach whose uncle, Mike Palmateer, is a retired NHL goalie who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals from 1976 to 1984. Ruby first tried hockey at age 4 but quit because she didn’t like the early-morning sessions or wearing her brother’s hand-me-down equipment. 

A year or two later, Josie was introduced to First Shift, which presented afternoon practice times once a week and affordable, properly fitted gear. It was a turning point for Ruby and the Palmateer family.

“It’s been a journey to get her on the other side of the glass,” Josie said. “It’s been amazing to see her flourish and enjoy her time. She has great coaches and volunteers out there and there are a couple of other little girls, so she’s feeling like she’s in a place where she belongs.”

First Shift was founded in 2013, when nine out of 10 children from Canada did not play hockey. It’s since seen 22,236 boys and girls participate in the program. The partnership was tested in November 2018 during a fitting event at Scotiabank Saddledome, where three Calgary Flames alumni helped introduce hockey to kids and their families, 90 percent who had never been inside the building.

“It’s just wonderful to give them the opportunity,” said Rob Knesaurek, NHL group vice president of youth hockey and industry growth fund. “We were actually going to try and align it to practice so they can connect with the team. We had (chief executive officer of Hockey Canada) Tom Renney there. The Flames spoke. It was just such an incredible event of companies aligning their assets to make sure that our participants and our families have an experience like no other, so they stay in the game.”

The seeds were planted when the NHL and NHLPA met with Mary-Kay Messier, vice president of global marketing for Bauer and a founder of the First Shift, in July 2018 to discuss a collaboration to bring assets the NHL and other parties can lend to the program and have a broader reach in Canada.

“From our perspective, having the hockey minds sitting at the table, trying to figure out how to increase participation and more importantly the love of the game … that is our ultimate goal,” Knesaurek said. 

Accessible, affordable, safe and fun are four objectives touted by First Shift. With the NHL and NHLPA formally on board, the mantra shared by all parties is next level, and there’s a lot more to accomplish to discover and uncover stories like Ruby Palmateer.

“We know we have a proven model to get families to try,” Messier said. “But I think we have the responsibility once they fall in love with the game to then offer programs that really align to their expectations. I think we made progress, but there’s a huge opportunity in that area to really bring it further along.”

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