When David Friedman began playing ice hockey at age 7, he could barely shoot a puck into the net and was only a marginal skater.
Six years later, the Columbia resident is among the best players on the AAWashington Little Capitals, the premiere traveling team in the capital metro area.
David's talents, says his father, Al Friedman, are a product of the Howard County Youth Hockey Club, an organization begun 20 years ago that has encouraged hundreds of children in the sport.
"Our goalis to provide the kids with the opportunity to experience team play," said club President Tom Hendrix. "Over 90 percent of the kids are from Howard County. And they all get a chance to play."
The non-profit club has grown from 60 players and four teams to an organization of about 390 players and 24 teams, among the largest of the eight hockey clubs in the Baltimore-Washington area.
Because of such growth, the club has experienced a shortage of ice time at the Columbia IceRink, forcing it to schedule some games outside the county.
"We are one of the few clubs in the area this year that has shown an increase in participation despite the recession," said Al Friedman, who isclub treasurer.
The club's performance this year marks it as one of the region's most competitive.
During Thanksgiving weekend, itssquirt "A" team of 10- and 11-year-olds captured first place in the International Silver Stick Regional Tournament, a contest that involved 10 hockey organizations from the Mid-Atlantic area and Canada. Theevent, played in Howard County, was a highlight of the club's 20th anniversary celebration.
By winning the title, the team qualifies for the tournament's second phase in Sarnia, Ontario, in January.
Another team from the club topped that honor last spring. In March, the Midget "A" team of 16- and 17-year-olds finished third nationally in its age group.
"No one from Maryland ever went to the nationals before," Midget coach Dick Baker said.
While the program has not yet produced top players for Division I and II college hockey teams, it has sent quality players to Division III and college club teams.
In recent years, the program's members have gone on to play for Villanova, Drexel, College Park and Delaware.
The program features three types of teams -- traveling squads, prep teams, and house teams --and an initiation program for children ages 6 to 18.
The 11 traveling squads, which compete against other clubs in the Baltimore-Washington area and the Delaware Valley, are made up of 8- to 18-year-old players.
The club's four prep teams (ages 10-13) compete with other area squads. The prep level is an intermediate step between the house and travel levels.
The house program -- for children ages 8 to 18 -- has nine competing teams. At the end of the season in March, several house teams competed in a tournament with other area clubs.
Howard also has an initiation program that teaches beginning skaters basic skills to prepare them for the other three levels.
To play on a traveling squad costs a youth $515 for the season.
It costs $360 to play on a house league team.
The club tries to offset the cost through a series of fund-raising events.
A Halloween skate-a-thon raised $2,500; the raffling of a pair of Washington Capitals season tickets brought in $1,800; and corporate sponsors contributed $10,000.
And Hendrix called the response to an alumni game Friday "overwhelming." One former member flew in from Chicago for the game, he said.
"We must produce friendship and team camaraderie for the kids to come back," Hendrix said.