Skates are on as clubs try to pass the puck
Ice hockey clubs are nurturing children as young as six in an attempt to safeguard the sport's future in Scotland. It is not easy: the sport is expensive, it requires dedication, finding coaches can be difficult and the clubs have to compete for junior members against other sports, such as football.
There are 13 clubs across Scotland that have teams competing in junior national leagues throughout the winter. The one at Murrayfield, in Edinburgh, has been going since the 1930s. It now has under-10 up to under-21 teams as well as Scottish League and British League teams.
Tony Hand, who is widely recognised as Scotland's best ice hockey player, is a product of the Murrayfield club who went on to play professionally, even enjoying a period in Canada.
"Tony was in the Murrayfield Racers team when he was only 15 but he started playing long before then," emphasises Duncan McIntyre, who coaches the under-14 team. Youngsters need to take up the sport at an early age if they want to be successful, he says.
"I have a young player in my under-14s who is only 10 and is talented enough to do well in the sport but he has also been playing for a while.
"Players need to learn the basics at primary school age. Sadly, for one reason or another, we have struggled this year to get under-10s. I think some clubs, like Kirkcaldy and Paisley, are not competing against football to the same extent as we are in Edinburgh.
"Having said that, we have a lot of young players in our older age groups. Our under-16s have a pool of 25 just now."
Mr McIntyre acknowledges that ice hockey is an expensive sport to play. Ice time is costly, with rinks also having to accommodate recreational skaters, ice dancers and curlers. Children at the Murrayfield club pay fees of pound;45 a month in addition to kit and travelling expenses. The club has a supply of second-hand equipment youngsters can use.
Jim Feeley, registration secretary for the ice hockey club in Elgin, Moray, who has two sons as members, says that despite the expense - pound;40 a month club membership fees - there is no shortage of primary school-aged children in the area who are willing to try the sport.
"We have a thriving youth set-up at present," he says. "We have teams at under-10, under-12, under-14 and under-16 levels. There are 20-25 children at our under-10 sessions, some as young as six. We put fliers out to all the local schools through the education department and that has proved very successful."
Finding experienced coaches has been a problem, but parents have taken it upon themselves to gain the necessary qualifications and help to tutor the young players, says Mr Feeley.
"It's important that players start out at an early age. Even though there is no national league until under-12 level (under-10 teams play friendlies), players need to have three years of experience before they play competitively.
"The problem is getting sufficient ice time. The rink at Moray Leisure Centre gives us a free hour every week and we use that to try to develop skills."
The players' travelling expenses are high. "We are a two-and-a-half hour drive from our nearest opponents and we travel as far as Dumfries for matches."
Dumfries Ice Hockey Club has no under-10 or under-12 teams this season for the first time in 10 years but has taken steps to address the problem. Kevin Docherty, a Canadian who played the game at a high level, was recently appointed the sport's development officer for the area and is believed to be the only such officer in Scotland. His salary is met jointly by the club and Dumfries and Galloway Council.
Mr Docherty grew up in London, Ontario, where he says it was "odd for kids not to play hockey". He has set up a new junior programme and has been visiting primary schools in Dumfries and Galloway with a couple of players from the Solway Sharks club. The response has been impressive.
This time last year there were fewer than a dozen boys attending at under-12 level, but numbers have mushroomed since Mr Docherty arrived, even though junior members have to pay pound;37 a month club fees. "On Saturdays now, we have 30-35 children playing," he says.
"I've invited all the schools in the area to send pupils to a festival at the Dumfries Ice Bowl. I'm expecting 400 to come.
"We'll just let them skate and, if anyone wants to have a shot at the game, we'll have the equipment there. We'll not force them into anything they don't want to try.
"I'm not expecting even 50 per cent of them to take up the game but if we can get just one child from each school, it would be a start."
Mr Docherty is confident that the game could take off in the south-west of Scotland.
As well as the expense, ice hockey requires enormous dedication to achieve a professional contract with any of the senior clubs. The demise of the Ayr Scottish Eagles this season due to mounting costs is a warning to all that, first and foremost, the sport has to make business sense.