Once your child learns how to skate and knows the fundamentals of playing hockey, they will be placed onto a house team at your local rink.
USA Hockey is different in regards to how your child is placed on a team. In most other sports in the U.S., your child is placed on a team relative to what grade they are in school. In hockey, it's based on a calendar year. Therefore a child born on December 31st could be in a lower age group than a child born a day later on January 1st.
USA Hockey defines age groups as follows:
I know what you're saying to yourself. "My kid is too old, some of these kids have been playing hockey since they were 4!" Don't worry. The one thing that is nice about youth hockey is that at any given age group, there are several "tiers" of players in terms of talent and experience. There aren't many bantam house teams that reject or not play a kid because he wasn't good enough. If your child really wants to play, they will play. If not, then the hockey program needs to be brought to the attention of USA Hockey. Any program that says they fall under USA Hockey but does not follow the USA Hockey guidelines runs the risk of not being affiliated with USA Hockey.
Typically, in the younger age groups your child will get the opportunity to play all the positions on the ice to get an idea of where they excel. You may want your child to play a forward, but you never know.......your kid could be the next Patrick Roy! Don't be the parent who insists their kid is the greatest forward since Wayne Gretzky and they should play nowhere except forward. If your child is truly that talented at any given position, the coaches at the next level will notice this (there is a lot of "scouting" that goes on even at the lowest levels) and will be placed in the position they excel at next season. At the younger levels, the kids need to be kids and fun should be stressed over winning.
Most house leagues do come with a cost. Let's use Mini-Mites as an example. Many local programs have Mini-Mites practicing once per week and usually one game per week. The season lasts from late-September to early-March. At this level you can expect to play 20 games, so you can imagine that the cost of ice time is not cheap when you consider how many practices and games take place. Many local programs charge right around $300 for registration. This covers everything except equipment and travel costs for your child. Equipment and travel costs will come out of your pocket. As your child gets into an older age classification, the annual fee will be higher than $300. The registration fee for a Bantam player in a house leagues can range anywhere from $500 to $1,000+
Equipment costs run about $250-$300 for entry level gear. The following items are required in most hockey programs. Bauer makes a wonderful starter package for younger players. Reference this sizing chart if you are unsure of what size you should order for any piece of equipment.
Don't get caught up in the expensive equipment early on in your childs career. Hockey skates for example can range from $40 to nearly $1,000. Don't buy the cheapest items you can find (because the quality tends to be relatively poor and they can wear out quickly) but you also don't need to buy the most expensive either. There is a middle point that is a good combination of price and quality. As your child gets older and starts to play more competitive hockey, then you may consider spending more money on better gear. For a 6-year old just starting out, you can by a good set of equipment for less than $400.
Most hockey equipment retailers offer a significant discount on equipment later in the winter and spring. They're trying to clear inventory to make room for next years models.
But be prepared for broken sticks, skate sharpening, and some other unforeseen costs that are likely to come up at some point. They WILL happen. Setting aside some money to cover these costs if you are on a tight budget is a good idea.
Once your child completes a few seasons in the house leagues, you ultimately have your first decision to make in terms of the path you want your child to take. Your child can stay in the house leagues for their entire career if they like, but some kids have natural ability and tend to rise above the rest. Beginning at the mite level and sometimes the squirt level, many programs have travel teams for kids that can play at a higher level than most house players.