PELHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It’s an hour-long trip for David Bradley and his children from their home in Prattville to the Pelham Civic Complex. Yet, that almost daily drive for them is worth it for youth hockey.
Several years ago, Lucas Bradley, David’s son, saw Auburn compete in an American Collegiate Hockey Association game in Columbus, Georgia. It got Lucas hooked, he said, and he started playing in-house youth hockey in Pelham when he was eight.
Now 13, Lucas is in his first season of travel hockey. His father is his coach. Hayden Bradley, his sister, said hockey is all she’s been focused on the past two years and was practicing with her brother’s team before she suffered an injury.
The Pelham Civic Complex is home to two NHL-sized rinks. The only other city in Alabama with hockey facilities is Huntsville. It’s evident that hockey isn’t the most popular youth sport in central Alabama.
“Since it’s such a football state, most people, even in the area, you tell them you play hockey, they don’t know the place exists,” David said.
Yet, when the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Birmingham Bulls aren’t taking stage at the Pelham Civic Complex, pucks are still flying around. Unlike when the professional franchise is in town, tinier skaters who are wearing full shield helmets are scoring the goals.
It’s not like coaches expect children to know how to play the sport at their first sign of interest. In fact, there’s a Little Toro’s Learn-to-Skate program which teaches those four to 17 years old how to skate in three different courses.
Once a student passes, they can move on to learn-to-play, where they are instructed on puck handling, shooting skills and advanced skills. When a participant graduates from learn-to-play, the student is eligible for the Pelham Youth Hockey League, which competes in-house.
“Everybody here is really nice,” Lucas said. “The hockey environment is just amazing.”
Garrett and Justin Clemons are two of the in-house coaches. The brothers didn’t grow up playing hockey, but once they started watching the NHL and attending Bulls games, they became enthralled about the sport and wanted to coach it. So, they took skating and adult learn-to-play lessons before competing in adult leagues.
Coaching in the PYHL is a fulfilling experience for Justin and Garrett, who have done it for about the past two years. Each brother coaches high schoolers. Justin also oversees 6U and 8U, but those divisions are with informal teams.
“On our older teams, we have a huge spectrum of kids that have been playing for six months, have been playing for 12 years,” Justin said. “Like on my team, I’ve got a player fresh out of learn-to-play, and I’ve got another player who’s from Canada. So, he’s been playing since before he can walk, which it’s really cool to see because they’re all over.”
The 6U-12U skaters practice twice and play once each week. Because the 14U and 18U teams have more players, those teams play twice and practice once a week.
Josh Harris, the director of hockey at the Pelham Civic Complex, said participation has been on the rise since last school year. The former Bulls forward noted there are between 200-250 children playing hockey in Pelham, with 140 of them in the PYHL. There are about 60 skaters in the learn-to-skate and learn-to-play courses, while the rest are in the youth travel programs.
“This is the first time we’ve seen a wider range of ages joining Little Toros,” Garrett said. “Normally, it’s like your typical 5,6,7,8 year old who’s willing to play because their dad plays or parents play. But recently, it’s been a lot more younger kids that are getting interested and then older kids that may play a different sport, want to come back and try something else. So, it’s been really cool to see that.”
The youth hockey programs at the Pelham Civic Center are still looking for more athletes. Justin noted it is difficult to attract more players because of how much gear costs.
The price to compete in the 2022-23 PYHL season – which runs from October through March – is $560, which includes a jersey and socks. It costs hundreds of dollars more to cover the rest of the equipment, even if they are bought used. Justin, however, said that the more the program grows, the more it can subsidize costs.
The homeschool program is having a soft launch, starting on March 6, and is expected to start play in the fall. A “Try Hockey for Free” session will take place March 25, and equipment will be provided. There are hockey and skating camps in the summer for all skill levels.
“We’ve been able to grow the program so much that it would be good to have more resources to continue the sustainability of that program,” Garrett said. “That’s a good problem to have. We could use some more parents who want to coach.”
Five years into his hockey career, Lucas said he aspires to play in college. His sister has the same goal. Despite being one of the few girls playing hockey against the boys in Pelham, Hayden said she fits in pretty well because she doesn’t take anything off anyone.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Hayden said. “I wish anyone that was interested in doing something different to do it because it’s a really fun sport. It’s different. You make a lot of new friends, and just helping people learn the sport makes me happy.”