Free hockey program helps underprivileged youth in Windsor, Ont.

Every Saturday morning in Windsor, Ont., children aged four to 15 step out onto an outdoor rink for a couple hours of ice time as part of a program called Knobby's Kids. The price tag appeals to their parents — it's completely free.

In a city that's facing difficult economic times, one program is making sure kids get to stay on the ice.

It's called Knobby's Kids, and it's benefiting families in Windsor, Ont. Every Saturday morning, kids aged four to 15 step out onto the outdoor hockey rink at Lanspeary Park for a couple hours of ice time. The price tag appeals to parents, because it's completely free.

"We got a program that we believe in," said Jerry Slavik, one of the program's founders.

Knobby's Kids is in its third year and was started by Slavik, Frank Spry and Knobby Knudsen to get Windsor kids who normally couldn't afford hockey out skating.

"The majority of these kids are from single-parent families and don't have two nickels to rub together," Slavik said.

The Windsor community has come together to keep the program running smoothly. The city gives the ice time at Lanspeary Park to the program for free, and various community groups and members donate money and equipment to support the kids.

"We are able to outfit these kids with everything, the works," Slavik said. "We have never asked for a penny from anyone, but we have some generous people in the community."

Around 100 kids show up for the free session every Saturday, and time is split between drills and playing the game. Slavik says the aim is to help kids improve their skills in a pressure-free environment, where everyone gets an equal share of ice-time and all go home happy.

By the response from the community and especially the kids, Slavik is pretty sure the program is working.

"A lot of kids suit up Friday night and sleep in their outfits, [because they] can't wait until Saturday morning," he said.

Slavik says it makes for a good alternative for Windsor parents who can't afford to put their kids through minor hockey — and that number is growing thanks to the economic downturn. The Windsor Minor Hockey Association lost 12 teams this season alone.

"You hate to say it's the economy and the cost of hockey, but we started three years ago with about 20 kids and we're up to 170 now," Knudsen, co-founder and namesake of the program, told the Windsor Star on Saturday. "When I started hockey it cost $45. Now it costs more than $500 [to register] and the equipment on top."

Jeff Sobocan, one of the program's many volunteers, says the program helps to ease the growing strain on Windsor parents.

"There's a lot of people... that can maybe put one kid through but can't put all their kids into hockey," he said. The parents "are all very appreciative of it. Some wouldn't be able to do it otherwise."