Wednesday, March 8, 2017 | 2 a.m.
A mob of 11-year-olds runs back and forth across the parking lot, flailing their hockey sticks as they chase a street hockey ball as it darts across the pavement.
Eighteen-year NHL veteran and Golden Knights Vice President Murray Craven yells instructions but to little avail.
The kids know next to nothing about the sport, and for most it’s the first time they’ve ever held a hockey stick. But that didn't prevent smiles from stretching across eager faces.
The best and brightest children from the After School All-Stars program played street hockey, oversized Jenga, tossed beanbags and colored a Golden Knights banner with markers after meeting team executives Wednesday afternoon.
This is what a professional sports team does for a city.
It builds a sense of community that everyone can latch onto and call their own. Players join the community and reach out to youth groups to reward children with memories that will last a lifetime.
Tuesday afternoon the Golden Knights celebrated their multiyear partnership with Toyota with a youth hockey clinic at the AutoNation dealership on West Sahara Avenue.
“Those of us who are fans of the game know how much fun it is,” said team president Kerry Bubolz. “That’s why we’re so excited to have all of these kids from the After School All-Stars. Just being able to show them how to hold a hockey stick and go through an overview of the basic rules, and the rest is just fun and games.”
The 64 kids at the event were chosen as the best behaved and most involved in the after-school program from Dean Petersen Elementary. ASAS has programs at 15 elementary and middle schools in Southern Nevada, with Dean Peterson being the newest.
“It has been a tremendous experience for the students,” said Jodi Manzella ASAS’ executive director. “For them to experience what it’s like to have partners in the community like the Golden Knights and Toyota to show the kids that there are people, businesses and organizations that want to invest in them. It’s truly priceless for the students.”
Deonte Tharpe, 11, moved to Las Vegas from Davenport, Iowa, and didn’t have a favorite team despite loving hockey and basketball. After Wednesday it’s safe to say that’s no longer the case.
“Oh, the Golden Knights are my favorite for sure,” Tharpe said, proudly pointing to his Golden Knights T-shirt. “It’s so cool because every time I go to one of their games I’m going to wear my shirt and scream ‘Go Golden Knights!’”
Reaching out to youth in the community is important for every professional sports team, but even more so for the Golden Knights. Nevada ranked 42nd in the country among USA Hockey participants with fewer than 2,000 registered. The top states have nearly 50,000.
“At the end of the day there’s nowhere to go but up,” Bubolz said. “We’re going to go out and get sticks in kids’ hands and start to build a hockey community.”
As part of the partnership, Toyota presented the Golden Knights with a 2017 Toyota Sienna. The black minivan wrapped in Golden Knights decals pulled up to the ceremony to the cheers of the children.
“I think it’s appropriate because it speaks to the hockey mom,” Bubolz said. “You have to throw the equipment and bags in the back, and move kids to and from practice and those early mornings at the practice facility are all part of the hockey experience.”
The Golden Knights hope many more Southern Nevada kids will be having such an experience in the future. Along with help from Toyota, the Golden Knights are working to provide resources to grow the sport of hockey in the community.
Wednesday was just the first step, but it wasn’t a small one. Suddenly kids who had never held a hockey stick were slapping pucks with the coaching of a former NHL player in Craven.
But Craven looked to be having just as much fun himself.
“You can tell he’s a kid at heart,” Bubolz said. “There were a couple times he was using his advance skill to outdo some of those 7- and 8-year-old kids. He was clearly having a good time, but most importantly he was putting smiles on all their faces.”