This is the ultimate in cool or, at least, very chilly. Free ice hockey lessons for primary school children in Peterborough are proving to be a popular alternative to traditional PE classes. The idea is the brainchild of Jon Kynaston and Kevin Mee, who formed Eastern Ice as a charity to promote an interest in ice hockey.
"We were looking for a way to keep up the level of enthusiasm for ice hockey here because there is always a danger that the rink will have to close if numbers drop too far," says Jon. "We both have children and felt that schools might appreciate a chance to try another sport."
Backed by a donation of pound;80,000 from Planet Ice, which owns the Peterborough rink, and pound;50,000 from Sportsmatch, a government-funded scheme, the project is into its second year. Some 500 children are currently involved, mostly Year 3 pupils, although some enjoyed it so much last year that they have arranged to return as Year 4s. Eastern Ice is providing 20, hour-long sessions each week for 14 schools in the Peterborough area.
The instructor for the sessions is a local hero, Canadian Jesse "The Hammer" Hammill, captain of the successful Peterborough Phantoms ice hockey team. "The children start off at the same level, as none of them have done it before, and it isn't necessarily those that are usually good at sport who do well with skating," says Jesse. "I can think of one girl in particular who didn't consider herself athletic but is gifted at ice hockey. You don't really need ball skills, it's more to do with hand-eye co-ordination and motor skills. You use different muscles to when you are running, and you need confidence."
To start with, Jesse takes the children through a safety drill, showing them how to fall safely. Some are very nervous on the ice. "I have to explain that it's not like a pond, it will not crack or let you fall through into freezing water," he says. "Some will cling onto the barrier, not daring to move off. One child who had special needs cried because he was so nervous, but we encouraged and reassured him and by the end of the lesson he was happily skating into the middle."
The children from Watergall Primary School in Peterborough are showing no hesitation on the ice, and are getting to grips with wielding their hockey sticks. Dressed in warm jeans and jumpers or track- suits, they are all wearing safety helmets.
The equipment is provided free of charge by Eastern Ice. "This is a really exciting opportunity for the children," says teacher Vicki Prior. "In fact it has proved so popular that some of them are coming in their own time at weekends and in the holidays. We can see how it is boosting their confidence and is a good way for them to develop new sporting skills. They are becoming really interested in the sport and quite a few are taking up the free match tickets that Eastern Ice gives us."
Jesse adds: "Of course we hope the children get the bug and take up ice hockey, but aside from the hockey, the scheme introduces children to the ice, so than can go onto recreational, dance or speed skating, if they want. There are some who have the ability to join the junior team, but others may want to come and see matches and support the team. It's a good social life as well as an exciting sport."
Generous as the scheme is in providing free lessons and equipment, transport is still a major problem as only schools that can provide their own are able to take part. "We could increase the number of sessions to take on more schools, but unfortunately four schools have already had to drop out because transport is too expensive for them," says Jon. "We would dearly love to see some of the rural schools here and we are exploring ways so that we can subsidise the transport. The response we have had from the schools so far has been very positive in that ice hockey generates a great deal of enthusiasm giving children an active interest in the sport."
There are 38 ice-skating rinks in the country, some of which also have links with schools in some way, including those at Bradford and Milton Keynes. And ice hockey is a key part of their existence, with opportunities for children to join the junior clubs.