Suiting up for his first-ever attempt at playing hockey, 6-year-old Amilio Chavez is rarin' to go.
His mother, Chrissy Chavez, has already managed to put shin guards, padded pants, elbow pads, shoulder pads and a helmet on Amilio, and now she's struggling to tighten his skates.
Though he's never skated before, Amilio already lists hockey among his favorite sports, along with baseball and soccer. And then he adds, as if to prove it, "I have hockey pucks at home!"
Regardless of well he does when he actually hits the ice, that kind of enthusiasm is just what Sean O'Donnell likes to see.
He is president of the Billings Amateur Hockey League, which last year began offering a series of introductory hockey sessions to get beginners like Amilio into the sport. The ice time is free and most of the equipment is donated. Parents pay only a $37 fee to cover insurance, and they have to buy their children a mouth guard and a hockey stick.
"Part of it was removing the economic barriers," O'Donnell said of the program. "The other part was really to try to convince kids and parents that this is a great game and kids can have a lot of fun with it."
It appears to be working. Of the 40 kids who signed up for the program last year, 20 to 25 of them returned this fall, some for additional beginner sessions and some to participate in organized league play.
The Billings Bulls, the Junior A hockey team that plays at Centennial Arena, donated 40 sets of youth equipment for the program. The Bulls got a discount on the equipment from USA Hockey, the national governing body for the sport.
The introductory sessions began in October and are offered every Saturday morning from 8:15 to 9:30 at Centennial Ice Arena, 427 Bench Blvd. The sessions will run until mid-December and participants don't have to attend every session, so parents can still sign up their children for this year's program.
Though the program is aimed at young children, O'Donnell it will accept boys and girls to the age of 18. Last year, participants ranged in age from 3 to 17.
The kids usually do some group skating to start off, then break into age-appropriate groups for instruction. It often happens that the youngest players pick the sport up fastest.
"We get 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who can out-skate some of the 9- and 10-year-olds," he said.
O'Donnell said the BAHL came up with the program last year because there had been a "relatively significant decline" in the number of people involved in the league in recent years.
All of the competitive teams have to travel, which is a disincentive for many people, but there is a recreational program for 11- to 15-year-olds that involves no travel. Between that and the introductory program, O'Donnell said, "we're really working to try and re-engage people."
O'Donnell and Tim Gustin, who both coach traveling teams in the youth hockey program, take turns acting as head coach for the Saturday learn-to-skate sessions. They are helped by three or four other adult coaches and by players from the high school team.
"We truly appreciate that. That's one thing the high school coach has demanded of his players," O'Donnell said.
Centennial Ice Arena was built by the BAHL in 1982 and is operated by the league in partnership with the Bulls, the Figure Skating Club of Billings, the Yellowstone Figure Skating Club and the adult hockey league.
Last year, the arena had more in bills than it had in the bank. After working hard to get out of that financial hole, it now has three to four months of operating money in receivables, O'Donnell said.
"It's an expensive operation and we're very proud of what we've been able to do," he said. "We're trying to really help this organization recover."
Last year the organization concentrated on finances, he said, and this year the goal is "more growth and exposure and starting to get people interested in the game. … We're pretty excited about what's going on out there."