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When teaching hockey, Golden Knights begin with youthful minds

Lauren Nelson grew up in New Hampshire and cheered for all things Boston sports. She wore a black and gold Bruins T-shirt on Saturday and stood on a court at Sunset Park, her two boys having just been shown a glimpse of how slap shots might fit into their world.

“I want them to get out and move around and be active and interact with other people and kids,” she said. “This has been great. It would great if they had more in the future.”

Education is said to be the premise of progress, a belief the Vegas Golden Knights must embrace more and more as the expansion team’s inaugural NHL season draws closer.

And when it comes to introducing hockey to a nontraditional desert community, it’s best to start young.

More than 1,300 youth ages 5 to 15 were scheduled to take part in Sticks For Kids street hockey clinics on Saturday and Sunday (Desert Breeze Park), where all participants will go home with a stick and ball and, hopefully, a deeper grasp of the game than when they arrived.

There is another free clinic on June 3 at Anthem Hills Park, another opportunity for the franchise to cast a wide net in hopes of reaching a large grassroots section of Las Vegas fans.

The Knights will walk a fine line early in their existence: How best to market and promote hockey to a town where some will be transplants with a high level of knowledge and others will own a moderate level of understanding and others who won’t know a blue line from a Zamboni.

From broadcasters to team officials in media and marketing and public relations, there will exist the challenge of both not talking over some heads when explaining the game while not talking down to those who know it.

“We want to get them started learning the game at a young age,” said Kim Frank, vice president of marketing for the Knights who spent nine years with the Washington Capitals. “It’s a process, from putting a stick in their hands to learning to skate to then learning to play. We want to hit all demographics. We want everyone in Las Vegas to feel involved and welcomed. We don’t want it to be an afterthought for anyone.

“To explain something like icing is one thing, but to show icing is another. I know what icing is and yet, sometimes, I look to someone who played the game and say ‘Is that icing?’ We’re going to have these types of educational events for all ages. Get the brand out there. Maybe for a person from the Midwest, say a Blackhawks fan, it won’t be educating them about the sport, but rather the team and who we are, our brand, our logo.”

It’s a similar mindset used in Tampa and Dallas and Phoenix, nontraditional hockey markets that sought ways to reach the largest amount of people in an economically friendly manner.

Always, you begin with kids.

Analytics have told the NHL that for every child 8 and under who learns the sport, hockey inherits three fans, a big reason events such as Sticks For Kids have become a major part of the league’s youth initiative.

Rob Knesaurek believes Las Vegas owns the sort of appetite for hockey that clinics such as those Saturday will only increase the craving for more. A native of Toronto, the league’s vice president of Learn To Play and Growth Fund Initiatives has seen how simply engaging young minds can make a remarkable difference.

“The knowledge part comes a bit later,” Knesaurek said. “You figure we will get 10 percent of kids at a clinic such as this to get on the ice at some point and begin skating. We can build fans from all forms of hockey — ice, street, roller — and show people how fun the game is. It doesn’t always have to be about a kid going to the NHL. It could just be about a recreational activity and all the wonderful things you can get out of this game.”

Angel Parra is 13 and plays basketball, but wanted to try out this street hockey thing and learn the proper way to hold a stick. So he showed up Saturday, passed through all the different skill stations, and came away wanting more.

In an hour, hockey — and, specifically, the Golden Knights — had a new fan.

“The best part was how encouraging they were when teaching us,” Parra said. “Hockey is way better than basketball. You get to do a lot more.”

His smile was shared by kids and parents alike, including that Boston Bruins fan whose sons, Ean (11) and Landen (8), wore the sweaty but satisfied looks of other young minds who not only learned a bit about hockey, but walked away interested in knowing more.

Which had to be a gratifying feeling for Lauren Nelson because, well, you know, the Celtics and all …

“No comment about that,” she said.

Just look at those Golden Knights … stealing away NBA fans as we speak.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter

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