This past fall when National Hockey League players and owners battled over money and threatened to cancel the season, there was a period of anxiety. But Texas hockey fans need not have been worried—developmental leagues like the Central Hockey League (CHL) were sure to offer plenty of ice, blades, and body checking, regardless of the NHL turnout. Now in its thirteenth season, the CHL boasts seventeen independently operated teams in Texas, Tennessee (the Memphis RiverKings’ home base is actually in Southaven, Mississippi), Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Colorado, and New Mexico. The Lone Star State is home to nine teams, one of which—the Laredo Bucks—was both the 2003–2004 regular season champs and the President’s Cup play-off winners. More than 30 million fans have attended CHL games since its inception, and many of those supporters are children. Not only is the league as a whole concerned with youth-oriented educational programs, but individual teams are also deeply involved in their local communities. See what the CHL is doing off the ice to keep young Texans hooked on hockey.

As part of its Junior Reporter Program, the CHL sponsors a youth journalism program every season in which a young fan between the ages of eight and sixteen is selected to be a reporter for one game per season. The chosen young sportswriter views the game from the press box, tours the ice rink facilities, interviews a player or coach after the game, and is interviewed in return on the team’s radio broadcast. The stories and photos are posted on the CHL’s Web site.

As part of the Stick with Reading program, a series that promotes extracurricular reading among students in grades kindergarten through eighth, athletes and mascots make classroom appearances and give away tickets to games to try to get kids to read. Last spring, the Lubbock Cotton Kings’ mascot, Eli the Cotton King, visited area elementary schools.

The Odessa Jackalopes have teamed with the RockHounds, Midland’s minor league baseball team, to promote Scoring in the Schools, an anti-drug education program encouraging teamwork and the importance of staying in school. A short video, which features segments of games and messages from athletes, is shown at the beginning of each assembly, and Slap Jack, the Jackalopes’ mascot, and Juice the Moose, the RockHounds’ mascot, give prizes to local student volunteers who perform skits and answer questions about peer pressure and staying away from drugs.

The Austin Ice Bats’ Fang makes appearances at private parties (like many other CHL mascots do, including the Amarillo Gorilla’s Stomp, last year’s Mascot of the Year) and big community events, like the Race for the Cure in Austin. Fang also drops by local schools as part of the Grades for Blades program, which is sponsored by the Ice Bats’ Children’s Charities Foundation. Players accompany Fang on these visits, promoting citizenship values and academic achievement and leadership. Free tickets to games are given to children who show improvement in these areas.

The Fort Worth Brahmas participate in an educational program called Cool School, which involves class lesson plans that relate aspects of hockey with math, history, reading, and writing. Each year the program ends with a district-wide field trip for student participants to a Brahmas game. At the first annual Cool School game last January, students were provided with tickets, transportation to the game, goodie bags, and lunch. Exceptional students were recognized for their academic achievements within the program. Team officials worked with FWISD teachers and devised math and science drills—like how holding a hockey stick at different angles affects shooting on goal—for students to do during intermissions at the game. The Cool School game will be held again this season December 14.

In addition to these programs, teams hold hockey camps and clinics throughout the year for both children and adult players. But what many fans look forward to the most are the games themselves—and the 2004-2005 CHL season is underway until late March.