AUTHOR: PHELPS

HED:Summer school on skates

By Gene Phelps

Daily Journal

Surely you've heard the great hockey one-liner: "I went to a fight the other night and a hockey match broke out."

Well, Tupelo T-Rex head coach Peter Esdale wants the public to know that there's more to professional ice hockey than the knock-down, drag-out brawls that make the TV highlights.

"I know the savage part of the public likes the fighting, they like the contact," Esdale said. "It doesn't have to be a contact game. We play a lot of recreational hockey in Canada that's non-contact. That's the beautiful part of the game."

And, to educate Northeast Mississippi on the "other side" of hockey, the officials and coaching staff of the T-Rex are conducting free in-line hockey clinics for area youth.

Esdale eventually wants to conduct on-ice clinics for youth and adults once the $750,000 ice rink is installed in a couple of weeks in the Tupelo Coliseum.

"The idea of the clinics is to teach kids a basic understanding of hockey and safety," said T-Rex general manager Eric Muhlstein. "Hockey is a very easy game to understand. There are not a lot of rules."

The T-Rex has also published a brochure called "Hockey 101: A Beginner's Guide To The Hottest Game On Ice." The brochure, which includes rules information, a look at the team positions, hockey facts and figures, and T-Rex ticket information, is available at the Tupelo Coliseum office and selected outlets in Northeast Mississippi.

"The brochure explains each position and gives you the basic rules of the game," Muhlstein said. "Plus, it includes information about the T-Rex."

Before the T-Rex cranks up its inaugural season in mid October, Esdale wants potential hockey fans to know his sport offers many of the same thrills as soccer, basketball and football. He also says it's an easy sport to understand.

"You can relate it to soccer and basketball," he said. "Basically, you're looking at offense and defense. You're looking at outnumbering people with 2-on-1 breaks, the transition from offense to defense.

"The only thing that's a little different about our game is the speed. The contact is much more intense. And there's the skill involved in skating and handling the stick and a puck at that high speed."

As for the football comparison, Esdale says, "It's the same as football, it's head-on contact."

He adds, "The game is a very intelligent game. That's why we're trying to bring skilled players into Tupelo, because I think that's part of the game that's not appreciated enough. That's really the beauty of the game. You'll see puck movement on our end with speed. We'll attack the blue line. You'll see defensemen get up in the rush. You'll see players take on defensemen, trying to delay people coming through for scoring opportunities. It's exciting. You have fight through all the checks and the contact to do all those things.

"... We want to get people to appreciate the speed, the balance, the grace, the strength and the power the players skate with."

Muhlstein says the key to educating the public about hockey is to target the youth, starting with the clinics and eventually creating a youth hockey league for the city.

"Down the road, I'd like to see hockey in the schools," he said. "That's how it got started in the North. Austin (Texas) and some other cities are looking at starting high school programs. They'll start out as club sports and later become varsity sports.

"But it all starts with getting the kids involved. Soccer is a perfect example. It all starts with youth programs."

T-Rex assistant coach George DuPont conducts the in-line clinics.

"He (DuPont) is wonderful with the kids," Esdale said, as he watched DuPont conduct a recent in-line clinic at the Tupelo Coliseum. "These clinics are good. They get the kids thinking about the game.

"In-line hockey is an exciting game. It's a very skilled game. It's a good opportunity for the kids to get exposed to skating, handling the puck, passing, receiving and shooting, the basic rules."

Esdale hopes the youth clinics, future adult clinics and the "Hockey 101" information brochure will generate enough interest in the sport to make the T-Rex a success at the box office.

"We want people to start thinking about hockey in the summer," he said. "We want people to start talking about the season."

Info Box

The Tupelo T-Rex will conduct in-line hockey clinics from 6 to 8 p.m. every Tuesday through the end of August at the Tupelo Coliseum. The clinics are for boys and girls ages 6 to 16. Participants must bring own skates and helmet. For more information, call 842-7825

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