Sean Kennedy watched with amusement as his son, Rowan, took his first “steps” as a hockey player.

At one point, Rowan lost his footing and slid across the ice.

“It’s like watching a baby giraffe walk for the first time,” Sean said from the bleachers.

Rowan, 4, was one of 128 children who laced up their skates Saturday morning during the Janesville Youth Hockey Club’s “Try Hockey for Free” event at the Janesville Ice Arena.

According to Janesville Youth Hockey Club president Ed Chady, the number of participants was a record high.

The Janesville Ice Arena was one of hundreds of rinks nationwide that hosted free hockey events as part of USA Hockey’s 11th annual “Hockey Weekend Across America.”

The spike in attendance in Janesville can, at least in part, be attributed to the popularity of the recently-completed Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where one of the biggest storylines was the United States’ captivating win over Canada in the women’s hockey gold medal game.

But that’s not the whole story. Between the NAHL’s Jets; the success of the Rock County Fury and Janesville Bluebirds, the area’s high school programs; and its close proximity to the University of Wisconsin’s storied men’s and women’s teams, Janesville is a hockey hotspot.

“Hockey is growing in Janesville in general,” Chady said. “As a club, we’ve gotten really active in trying to market this and get kids to the program.”

And marketing is crucial. Hockey can be an intimidating sport to newcomers.

Janesville Youth Hockey Club vice president Will Springer said prospective hockey families frequently cite equipment costs as a barrier to entry. Events like Saturday’s give families a no-strings-attached opportunity to see if they like the sport.

Such was the case for Ashlyn Smith, whose daughters, Ivy, 7, and Nora, 6, wanted to give hockey a shot Saturday.

“I like to give them a chance to try out a bunch of different things, and this is a nice way to try it for free without having to buy all the equipment just to find out they don’t like it,” Smith said. “They’ve done basketball, swimming … one wants to do gymnastics.”

Smith said her husband heard about the free event during a Janesville Jets game. That’s music to Janesville Youth Hockey Club’s ears, because “Try Hockey for Free” events are the club’s top recruiting tool, Springer said. The club hosts such events twice a year, typically in November and February.

“We try to plant the seed and hopefully those kids will come,” Springer said. “You’re always going to get those traditional families, but to grow the program you’re trying to get those people that don’t know a lot about it.”

Springer said Janesville Youth Hockey Club continues to invest in equipment as it seeks to ease the financial burden on new hockey families.

“I hear a lot from families that aren’t involved in hockey; they talk about the cost,” Springer said. “We provide helmets, all the equipment, except for skates and sticks. We’re working on accumulating skates we can provide as well. You can play hockey up until 8 years old really only buying skates.”

Chady said Monday he heard nothing but positive feedback from families who attended Saturday’s “Try Hockey for Free” event. It brought back fond memories for Chady, who has two daughters that are members of Janesville Youth Hockey Club’s squirt and peewee programs, respectively.

“It’s always really exciting to see the parents watching their kids out on the ice for the first time,” Chady said. “The parents taking the video of ‘little Johnny’ or ‘little Susie’ skating across the ice. It’s really rewarding.”

There were plenty of parents recording videos or taking photos Saturday as their kids slipped, scooted and, occasionally, skated.

The Janesville Youth Hockey Club is hoping it was the beginning for a new generation of players.

Bryan Wegter is a sports copy editor for The Gazette. Email him at bwegter@gazettextra.com

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