If you are a kid and want to learn how to ice skate and play hockey, Central Rhode Island Knights Youth Hockey may be the place for you. The CRI Knights are located at the Benny Magiera Ice Rink in West Warwick.
The program offers two levels of Learn to Skate, and then when the kids are ready they Learn to Play the game of hockey.
Once the kids are comfortable on the ice, they can try out for the Knights’ house-league or travel hockey teams.
Billy Whelan is the President of the Knights. Whelan along with other coaches help to teach children ice hockey. Whelan played hockey at La Salle before graduating in 1998. He is joined by his cousin John Whelan, who played hockey at Hendricken with the Boston Bruin’s Noel Acciari. Whelan also recruited another cousin Stephen Gerundio to help coach.
“Back in the early late ’70s to early ’80s, there was the Pawtuxet Valley Knights that played out of this building when the rink first opened,” Whelan explained.
The CCRI Knights reformed back in 2014 when the former West Warwick rink manager wanted to add another team.
“He wanted to get another youth hockey group back into the rink here to replace the West Bay Islanders that had folded in probably 2013,” Whelan said.
“We started out with a Learn to Skate, Learn to Play on Tuesday nights in the summer and since then, it’s just kind of snowballed right down the hill into what we have right now.”
“The intent was to bring another youth organization back into this rink as a feeder program to the elite programs,” Whelan explained. “So, there’s quite a few elite hockey programs in the state and this was more or less to feed them to put kids from West Warwick, from the surrounding areas on the sheet of ice to hopefully get the ball rolling for when they get into high school.”
High school hockey is taking a beating where a lot of schools are forced to merge together to form co-op teams.
“Back when I was in high school you had West Warwick, you had Exeter, West Greenwich, you had Cranston East, you had Cranston West,” Whelan explained. “They had their own teams. Now there’s not enough players to feed those bulls to have a full high school squad. So, that was more or less the intent was to have these kids on the ice, have a place to play with the hopes of expanding high school hockey back to what it was back in the heyday.”
“The key is the Learn to Skate program,” Whelan continued. “Those are the seeds. All those seeds that are on the ice today, we’ve planted them just like a garden and then you’ve just got to nurture them, teach them, and then it grows.”
Kids can get on the ice from age 3 and up.
“The Learn to Skate program starts them off on a crate and once they’re able to skate with the crate we coach them off the crate, Whelan said. “We have three zones basically set up. So the center ice is where we have the crate kids. Where they learn to stand on it, they have a lot of fun and just feel comfortable on the ice. And once they’ve mastered that or seem to get bored, we push them down to the advanced learn to skate where you start working on your skating stride, your stopping, your backwards, and once they’ve really got the grasp of that, we send them down to the further end, put a hockey stick in their hands and now they’re starting to learn the game.”
“Our league is about having fun,” Whelan said. “It’s not about what the scoreboard says. It’s about letting these kids be kids and playing a game that people perceive to be an expensive sport, but in reality it could be a very cost efficient game to play. And that’s one of our mottos to keep hockey affordable and give the chance to those kids that wouldn’t normally step on the ice a place to play”
The rink will close down for a couple months before the next session starts up in June.
“We do another Learn to Skate, Learn to Play and then I run a skating session all summer long,” Whelan said.
In September, the travel teams’ season starts. The teams consist of Mites, which is 8 and under, squirts is 10 and under, Peewee is 12 and under, and Bantams is 14 and under.
“Being a new organization, we have plenty of them at the bottom and our Peewees and Bantams we’re kind of clawing to get more players to come in that have heard of the program doing well and everything,” Whelan said. “So right now, we have a mite and a squirt team for next year and they practice one night a week with games on Saturdays.
On the weekends during the fall, The Knights do a Learn to Skate, Learn to Play on Saturdays and Sundays.
All you need to attend the Learn to Skate, Learn to Play Program is a bicycle helmet and a pair of ice skates. First time skaters get the first session is free
“I always push elbow pads, knee pads, but it’s getting those kids out on the ice,” Whelan said. “I don’t want the parents to say ‘hey I have to buy all this hockey gear’ and he or she steps out on the ice and doesn’t like it. We give them a couple of weeks if they like it, I say to the parents, let’s get a hockey helmet, let’s get that face shield on there so they don’t hit their chin on the ice. We want them to fall. We want them to be covered in snow and then that’s how the snowball really gets rolling.”
“The equipment what we do is a lot of times people out grow it and we put it in our box and if somebody says ‘hey listen I can’t afford shin guards, okay let me go check the box,’” Whelan said. “We’ll bring them in and say okay we have a pair of shin guards here you go, you’re all set, when your done with them bring them back. So, basically our inventory of equipment has grown just by kids outgrowing them and saying here you guys take them.”
The Knights have one big fundraiser in the fall called “Funny for funds” where they obtained most of their money for the program.
Last Saturday night, the Knights had their end of year banquets for their house and travel players at Club Jogues in Coventry. There were three awards handed out, the Most Improved award, Most Valuable Player and then there was one that Whelan came up with called the Noble Knight Award, which is a sportsmanship award.
“It’s just a little bit of incentive for the kids to be recognized for the hard work they do,” Whelan said. “All the kids do great every year, I tell them you start down here at the beginning of the year and you just keep going up. You don’t ever go back down. The coach will never let you start going down. You’ll start at this level and you’ll only get better from there. And every kid that’s come through our program has gotten better. And that’s what keeps us out there, that’s for sure.”
Ralph Turner III, who plays on the squirts travel team received the conference player of the week award back in December.
“It was an honor because I was the first Knights player to get it,” Turner III said. “And coach mentioned it during the banquet, which made me feel proud of myself.”
Turner III was also awarded the Most Improved Player for that team.
Turner III’s favorite part about the season was when he scored his first goal back on November 26, but he always enjoys going to the rink and seeing his hockey family.
“It was fun,” Turner III said. “It was awesome because I met a lot of nice people.”
The league is made of mostly West Warwick and Coventry residents, with small amounts of kids from Cranston, East Greenwich, West Greenwich and Johnston.
Back in 2014, there were just 55 kids on the ice per week, now there are about 100.
“This is the end of our fourth season and we’ve got a very good foundation from the bottom up,” Whelan said. So, it’s more or less growing from there as we move forward.”
“I’ve got a great coaching staff, got great volunteers,” Whelan said. “We’re surrounded by great people. And that’s what makes me get out of bed. It makes me come to the rink. I’m in the rink six hours a week. It gets monotonous a lot, but you come here, you see the kids smiling, you see the kids having fun and that’s why I do it. And same thing with all of our volunteers, they love coming out here and they love doing it.”