FOR 12 SPRING and summer Sundays the ritual for Leon E. Hairston never varies.
He is up before the sun at 4:45 a.m. to roll sons Mark, 5, and Leon, 8, out of bed for breakfast. By 6 all three are on the road from their Southeast Washington home to the Tysons Corner Ice Arena, 25 miles away.
They arrive no later than 6:30 because it takes a good 30 minutes to make sure Leon and Mark are properly dressed, that their shin pads are securely fastened and their skates laced just so.
By 7 a.m. the Hairston brothers and as many as 70 other children ranging in age from 4 (that's right, 4) to 9 hit the ice. And, according to Hairston Sr., they "just go out there and have a ball."
Well, actually, a puck.
They are taking part in a three-month program, run by Ray Fleury, director of the Potomac Valley Hockey School. In two-hour classes each week Fleury, his assistant Granny Grant and a half-dozen volunteer parents will put the children through drills and routines designed to make them better hockey players and provide a good time for all.
"We don't want to make this something the kids are going to hate," said Fleury, a 37-year-old bundle of energy who learned his hockey in Springfield, Mass., from the legendary Eddie Shore and is now trying to impart that knowledge to anyone who will listen.
Fleury works full time as a civilian employee in the Army Corps of Engineers, but his parti-time session has always been hockey. He is coached in the Fairfax youth vague, helps referee in several old- [WORD ILLEGIBLE] leagues and represents several hockey equipment companies on the [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
But most of all he is a teacher, whether the pupil is a 4-year-old child in his first pair of skates or a 35-year-old man still eager to learn the fundamentals of the slap shot.
A lot of people are listening.
The April-through-June camp started three years ago. Now in addition to the Sunday morning session there is a group of 50 youngsters aged 10 to 13 playing from 5 to 7. In August, Fleury will conduct a two-week daily session of Tysons that will give each camper's hours on the ice a day for 12 days.
"When a kid finishes that," Fleury says, "his skill level is so much higher than when he comes in. Unfortunately they'll go out and play in the leagues and two months into their seasons a lot them are back to their old habits.
"But the important thing is they're coming here to learn, and if we can teach a kid how to skate forward, backward and cross over, well, everything else will come easy for him."
Teaching children hockey fundamentals is no easy task.
Fleury fondly remembers one youngster coming up to the blue line and stepping over it so he wouldn't slip
"One time Ray was trying to explain the importance of thrust," his wife Dicline recalled the other day. "He goes through this whole explanation, asks if anybody's got any questions and no one raised their hand.
"After the session was over, the kids there changing out their skates and the little 8-year-old says to his friend, "What the heck is thrust?" The other had says, 'Boy you got me.'"
Yeah," added Fleury, "I was explaining a pivot-turn another time and kids says, 'How do you eat pivot-turn?" you learn you can't take anything for granted. We go through everything step-by-step, in the simplest language you can. I think we're getting through."
Children as young as 3 1/2 years old have enrolled in the school, most of them eager to emulate older brothers already in the program. Parents can enroll two children between the ages of 4 to 9 for a total of $65 for the 12 weeks. (For further information, call 703-769-3891).
"Our little boy loves it," said Sharon Giovannucci, whose son Jason, 4, began skating at age 3. "My husband played hockey in Boston and we just thought we'd let Jason try skating. That's what he really likes.
"Sure I was apprehensive. I've been to some Capitals' games. The way they hit each other and fight all the time is scary. But there's none of that here, and the equipment makes it so safe."
Fleury disdains scrimmaging "because you don't really learn anything if 10 kids are on the ice and 40 are watching." But everyone participates in power skating, shooting and stick-handling drills.
Parents are encouraged to watch, but also to butt out. "I like to do the talking," Fleury said. "We don't want to put any pressure on the kids. We want to make it a situation there the kids feel comfortable. The parents can scream all they want to in the league seasons."
Fleury's voice and shrill whistle are the dominant sounds at Tysons Arena. If a youngster is struggling, Fleury is there with a word of encouragement. If a youngster is fooling around, a gentle stick in the pads can also be expected.
"The most important thing is to keep the kids interest in the game," Fleury said. "If you turn them off now, they'll give it up, and what good does that do? I've been playing the game since I was 4 myself and it's been an important part of my life.
"I would hope it can be the same way for a lot of these kids. I'm not here to produce an NHL superstar. I'm here to help kids learn to play the game the right way."