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Kevin Kavanagh aims to boost youth hockey

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Duxbury native Kevin Kavanagh, visiting a state-operated skating rink in Charlestown.

Kevin Kavanagh grew up skating on the frozen cranberry bogs by his Duxbury home and in the local youth hockey program.

Hockey has been his passport, taking Kavanagh to college in Connecticut, to various professional posts in New England, the Southeast, and Midwest, and to Colorado Springs with the membership development team at USA Hockey.

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This month, the 42-year-old returns home to take on a new challenge, filling the new role of executive director of Massachusetts Hockey, which oversees youth hockey across the state.

“Back in the mid-’70s, my grandmother was a huge Bruins fan,’’ he said. “She watched all the games and had all the yearbooks, so it was just something that I was attracted to.

“As I started to play more and more, I started to enjoy it more and more,’’ Kavanagh said. “For some kids it’s a chore to go to the rink, putting all the gear on. I enjoyed it. The more hockey, the better.’’

The move back to Massachusetts - he and his wife, Rebecca, were house-shopping this week - completes a circle that saw Kavanagh play forward at Duxbury High and Thayer Academy before moving on to Trinity College. There, he took an internship with the Hartford Whalers (now the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes), launching a front-office career that included stops in the American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League.

In 2008, Kavanagh and his young family (he and Rebecca have two daughters, now 8 and 5) moved to Colorado Springs after Belmont native Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of development, hired him to be manager of membership development for the national organization.

“Membership development is just that, growing the game,’’ said Kelleher. “How do we get back to getting more kids on the ice, how do we keep more kids in the game? And Kevin carried that message to Massachusetts.’’

The Mass. Hockey board created the executive director position to manage the day-to-day operations of the growing organization, with its membership now exceeding 50,000.

“To really cater to this number of people in the best way possible, we really need to have a full-time staff member,’’ said Keri-Ann Allan, president of Mass Hockey.

“We’re ecstatic that it’s Kevin,’’ Allan said. “With his background and his experience with USA Hockey, and knowing how to grow the game, and his contacts around the country, being able to form the partnerships with other affiliates, is absolutely huge. We’re really hoping to take the organization to the next level.’’

The Mass. Hockey board will continue to determine the agenda for youth programs, but Kavanagh will be driving the bus.

“He’s extremely knowledgeable, not only in the hockey sense, but also in the business world,’’ said Allan. “He knows how to market, he knows how to fund-raise.

“The best part is he’s enthusiastic and passionate about our sport. That goes a long way,’’ she said. “Knowing the game, and knowing the dynamics of Mass. Hockey and the hockey world, he’s definitely the total package. He’s that needle in the haystack.’’

With Mass. Hockey enjoying a “bump’’ from the Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup win - Kavanagh reports 8-and-under enrollments went from 13,000 to more than 14,000 in the last year - the time was ripe for a full-time staffer.

“We’ve had an extremely strong, committed volunteer base leading Mass. Hockey and our youth hockey efforts for a long time,’’ he said. “But as volunteers, there are challenges. They have real jobs that their livelihoods depend on, so what they can put into youth hockey is somewhat limited at times. So there’s a need to augment what goes on, on a day-to-day basis.’’

Though the laundry list of issues facing Mass. Hockey is long, Kavanagh highlighted several major themes.

Growing the game

“The phrase we like to use at USA Hockey is that we live in the 8-and-under world. Our job in membership development was to create programs that youth associations could use to grow the game locally,’’ Kavanagh said.

“If we have a strong program at the 8-and-under level, if our Mite programs keep growing year after year, we know the Squirt programs, the Peewee programs, and the Bantam programs are all going to benefit from that down the road.

“Cost and commitment are the two biggest barriers to entry into the sport,’’ he said. “There are a lot of families out there that won’t make that first effort because they hear about 4 a.m. practices and they hear it’s expensive, and they’ll be driving all over the state, the region, the country, and they don’t want that for their kids.

“Those aren’t necessarily truths,’’ he said. “We need to do a better job letting people know that these are myths, and that we can find ways to create programs that allow kids to play at local rinks, at a reasonable cost, with maybe one practice and one game a week, because that’s what they want.’’

Raising capital

“One of the things we’ve never done before here in the Mass. Hockey group or at the state level is generating revenue,’’ Kavanagh said.

“We have a strong enough base - over 50,000 people - and I guarantee that there are some consumers or companies out there that would like direct access to that group in a way that sponsorship dollars can be generated.’’

To do that, Kavanagh wants to establish better “brand awareness’’ through a campaign to inform people and businesses about the full scope of Mass. Hockey’s mission.

As an affiliate of USA Hockey, Mass. Hockey aims to support national initiatives such as the American Development Model (which puts more emphasis on practice time and skill improvement, rather than games), and moving body checking from the Peewee to the Bantam levels.

“These are good things, and they’re being done for all the right reasons,’’ said Kavanagh.

“These programs are being done with the best interests of all of our kids,’’ he said.

“And a better-skilled group coming up through the Peewee ranks will allow us to produce better players down the road, and keep other players in the sport longer.’’

Local programs

Mass. Hockey’s bread and butter has traditionally been town programs, but many of those are losing players to an ever-expanding group of “select’’ or “elite’’ organizations, many of which are for-profit ventures owned by rinks. Kavanagh said those programs are servicing a need.

“We’ve got a great volunteer leadership that continues to work to make the sport better, but we need to work with these programs to make sure they’re doing everything they can to offer the most competitive youth hockey option for parents as well,’’ he said.

“That’s an area we can continue to work on. We don’t want to see town programs go away. But we know the club teams exist, and that landscape won’t change anytime soon.

“So let’s do our best to complement both programs, and give people options.’’

Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.
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