Ron Hayes retires from Plymouth’s famed ‘Learn-to-Skate’ program after 40 years, but his impact will live on

Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey
Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey


By @MichaelCaples –

Over the past four decades, Ron Hayes has served as the head of the ‘Learn-to-Skate’ program for the Plymouth Canton Hockey Association.

During that timeframe, he has taught many future NHL and college hockey players how to stand on the ice and eventually fly across it.

Yet the most telling impact Hayes has had on the game may be the amount of players he helped that he’s not even aware of. Hayes, who works as an off-ice official for the Detroit Red Wings as one of his many different hockey duties, fondly tells the story of receiving an email from Mike Kaput, one of his former instructors, about a preseason NHL game between the Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.

“He said, ‘Hey Ron, did you score the Red Wings vs. Blackhawks game?’ I said ‘Yeah, why?’ And he said two of those kids for the Blackhawks went through our program. ‘I know, because they were in my group,’ Kaput said to me.”

Hayes, who is retiring from the ‘Learn-to-Skate’ program after building it from the ground up in 1975, said moments like that made all his work over the last 40 years well worth it.

“I didn’t know, I had no idea,” Hayes said of the aforementioned story.

A program that started with 12 children reached as high as 261 one particular season, all under Hayes’ guidance. The man who has worn more than enough hats around the hockey community – president of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association, executive board member for Little Caesars and Adray, MAHA’s director of initiation programs and more – won’t be leaving the game entirely. In fact, he said that as far as his job with the Red Wings goes, “they’re going to have to throw me out.”

Hayes working with 'Try Hockey For Free' participants during a skate at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)
Hayes working with ‘Try Hockey For Free’ participants during a skate at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)


Yet he did decide it was time to hang up the skates with the Plymouth-Canton program.

“At the start, we charged $2 if you showed up to skate on a Saturday – if you didn’t show up, no $2,” Hayes said. “We really had no finances coming, but we didn’t pay for the ice, so we used the $2 to buy Cokes or something like that after. From there, it evolved to what it is today.”

Hayes was the 2009 recipient of USA Hockey’s William Thayer Tutt Award, presented to a volunteer who, during many years of service, displayed a selfless dedication to the growth and enhancement of hockey at the grassroots level. He takes great pride in the fact that he has helped produce not just quality hockey players, but quality people. In the same sentence where he talked about how former NHL player and coach Brian Rolston would drive in from Fenton for his camps, Hayes also reflected on how participant Joe Sullers turned a hockey scholarship from Ohio State into a successful business career after hockey.

Hayes knew the kids by the first name written across the piece of tape on their helmets, which meant that there were immediate surprises (turns out that a ‘Jeff’ on the ice was the son of Detroit Tigers pitcher Dan Petry sitting in the stands) and later ones.

Hayes instructing members of the Plymouth Whalers on how to conduct a 'Try Hockey For Free' practice. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)
Hayes instructing members of the Plymouth Whalers on how to conduct a ‘Try Hockey For Free’ practice. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)

“Chris Conner came in from Westland, and I did not know that until their neighbor 15 years later, through Chris’ mom and dad, her boy was interested in skating and his mom and dad said you have to go to Plymouth. This woman came up to me and said, ‘I was told to come here,’ and I said, ‘Well that’s nice, who told you?’ ‘Chris Conner’s parents.’ I thought, ‘OK now I know of another one.’”

“But you don’t know. You see them at five, six years old, and I lose track, and I don’t know their last names, because all I have is the tape on the helmet.”

The work Hayes did with the ‘Learn-to-Skate’ program provided a foundation for a longstanding hockey association in more ways than just player development. While Hayes was on the ice with players just learning how to circle around a cone, he was also on the ice with instructors who would soon become coaches for Plymouth- Canton.

“We used our program, our ‘Learn-to-Skate’ program, to generate coaches for the association, because we would put them on the ice, see how they interacted with the kids, see what their hockey skills were and that type of thing. Then we would advise the Plymouth Canton Hockey Association that ‘this coach looks like he’s good, let’s keep him.’ We would keep them on the ice for the entire year, so they could watch what we did, so when they got a team, they were ready.”

Hayes will still be working in the grassroots level of hockey, assisting with MAHA’s ‘Try Hockey For Free’ initiatives. With all he has invested in the game, how could he not? After all, with all the players he has helped over the years, a few more wouldn’t hurt.

“It’s rewarding,” Hayes said. “They don’t forget you. The kids don’t forget you. That, to me, is really something, to see a grown-up, an adult, and he remembers you and he’s respectful. It’s great.”

Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey
Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey