Innovation in Youth Hockey: A Conversation with the NHL’s Rob Knesaurek

Hockey Q&A with Rob K recap

The COVID-19 pandemic brought youth sports to a standstill across the country, and in the process compelled organizers to take on new responsibilities all while adapting on the fly. This forced pause also presented the entire youth sports community with an opportunity to innovate and rethink its future. It’s this next wave of innovation that is driving our latest webinar series. 


In this episode, we were proud to welcome Rob Knesaurek, Group VP of Youth Hockey and Industry Growth at the National Hockey League. Rob was kind enough to provide our audience with an hour of his time, which allowed us to delve into topics ranging from innovation and accessibility to the NHL’s strategy to growing the game.


If you’d like to watch a full length recording of the conversation between Rob and LeagueApps’ President Jeremy Goldberg, click here. For the three major highlights from “Innovation in Youth Hockey: A Q&A with the NHL’s Rob Knesaurek” continue reading below. 


How Organizers Can Grow The Game

The NHL’s mission to grow the game extends to the grassroots. In fact, according to Knesaurek, the game of hockey can’t expand without a concerted and sustained effort by everyone at the youth level. During his time at the NHL he’s contributed to and led, in some cases, a variety of programs specifically designed to provide resources and experiences to players, parents, coaches, and organizers. 


Sports organizers are encouraged to reach out to their local NHL franchise to inquire about “Learn to Play” programs. The NHL and the NHLPA created Learn to Play to offer more families a chance to experience the benefits of youth hockey. First time participants receive head-to-toe equipment, age appropriate on-ice instruction, and certified coaching, led by NHL alumni, in a fun and safe atmosphere. 


Organizers who are looking to create compelling and meaningfully mission statements are also encouraged to consult with the NHL’s Declaration of Principles. This simple yet thought provoking release from the NHL has set the stage for a new era of inclusion in the sport and youth organizers across the country would be wise to incorporate these values into their program. 


Hockey Is More Than Just Ice Hockey!

For generations there was an accepted view of what hockey should look like. From the equipment to the practice routines, all the way down to the style of play. But as the game has evolved on the ice, so too has the culture around it. Knesaurek and the NHL are encouraging those in the youth hockey industry to think differently about how young players interact with the sport. For Knesaurek the quickest way to evolve is to incorporate different forms of the sport into training. Street ball, mini sticks/knee hockey, virtual training, and esports are some ways for kids to be exposed to hockey on top of the traditional on-ice version. The NHL has even advocated for the EA Sports NHL series to incorporate training within the video game so that players could take breaks every half hour to practice their stick skills. Spreading the love of the game requires outside the box thinking and the NHL is taking a leadership role in that new innovative future. 


Retention Strategies: Reducing Burnout

As Knesaurek pointed out during the discussion, players often come to a fork in the road at age 13. Estimates vary but it’s believed that upwards of 30% of players quit the game of hockey for good at age 13. One of the most common reasons players give for quitting is that they’re burned out and no longer have a passion for the sport. Knesaurek believes that no child should be playing the sport year-round, and for the sport to appeal to the 80 to 90 percent of players who will not compete at the collegiate, semi-pro, or professional levels, they need to encourage multi-sport participation. Not only do players that play multiple sports avoid burnout, they also build dexterity and different muscle groups. Some successful youth hockey organizations have already taken to partnering with youth sports organizations offering offseason sports. These cross-sport partnerships can be a differentiator for successful youth hockey organizations. 


To learn more about Knesaurek and the NHL’s work with EverFi’s STEM program, the league’s Industry Growth Fund or concerted efforts being made to create an inclusive and diverse future for the sport or hockey, click here for the full video recording. 






This piece was written by a member of the LeagueApps content team.