ELYRIA — Larry Wilson recently discovered he likes two things: hockey players and car seats.
It’s perfect considering that most of the hockey players he sees each week come in car seats.
“Most of these kids come in full equipment in a car seat in the back seat,” he said.
Saturday morning, Wilson, 69, who said he lives so close to the North Park Ice Arena he could skate there, arrived at the Elyria recreation center, laced up a pair of black, well-worn ice skates and led a group of youngsters out on the ice. For 45 minutes, he took the mini hockey players through a series of drills as parents watched from stands.
At 12:45 p.m., Elyria Youth Hockey Club President Lee Frank blew a whistle to end the day’s practice session. It was about 15 minutes early, but Frank wanted to give the rest of the time to Wilson, calling the veteran coach and kids over to the edge of the rink where Wilson’s family waited to watch him receive a plaque for all his years of service to the organization.
Wilson has given more than 35 years to the hockey club. Fifteen minutes is nothing compared to the amount of time he has spent over the years molding young players and becoming the organization’s longest-serving coach.
“Basically every kid that is playing hockey in Lorain County right now in Midview, Amherst, Avon and Elyria Catholic and if they skated in Elyria as kids, skated for coach Larry,” Frank said.
Wilson started volunteering in 1983 when his own kids were just youngsters barely big enough to cart around the massive gym bag that is the hallmark of the sport. Eventually, they grew up and aged out of the program, but Wilson never left.
“I’m getting second-generation kids … I just enjoyed it so much,” he said. “Hockey does a lot to teach kids teamwork and hard work, and I never have ever stressed winning. It’s more about playing the game and being a good teammate. I think if I have done any good, I have taught kids that.”
Wilson said he has lost track over the years of how many kids he has met on the ice. His daughter said the number is around 1,000. He said its about 40 to 50 kids a year, so do the math.
“It’s a lot of them,” he said. “And a lot of these kids go on to do great things, and I think hockey has a lot to do with that.”
Frank said Wilson is caring, patient, light-hearted and not too serious — great qualities to have when dealing with kids who are all younger than 10, decked out in head-to-toe protective gear as they skate around the ice with sticks in their hands.
“Coaching takes a lot of patience,” he said. “He makes it fun for the kids.”
Coach Paul Sadowski said Wilson’s participation in the program, which is a part of the Cleveland Suburban Hockey League, has been invaluable.
“The kids just look up to him,” he said. “He is always here. He is always ready. Every one that starts comes through this youth program, and he has been pivotal to the program’s success.”
When asked to give a quick master’s class lesson on how to be a good coach, Wilson did not mention strategy or game theory; instead, he said it is about remembering the basics.
“A good coach makes sure the kids have fun and want to come back,” he said. “There are a lot of things you can learn about hockey, but having fun is the biggest one. Having fun and being active are the important things I like to teach.”