Steamboat Springs The players glide across the ice, weaving past one another and then slide onto the cold surface to begin stretching.
It is Sunday morning and the Steamboat Springs Bantam traveling team is preparing for its latest opponent: a team from Colorado Springs known as YAHA.
Matt LeGrice and his Steamboat Braves teammates square off at center ice and battle for possession of the puck. "Who let the dogs out?" resounds throughout Howelsen Ice Arena, and die-hard fans begin to yell for their players. Two minutes go by before the Bantams get on the scoreboard after LeGrice knocks in a shot past two defenders.
The Bantams go on to beat YAHA 6-2 behind a strong performance from Phil Bush, who blasts in three goals to record a hat trick. The satisfied fans exit the rink after witnessing another win by the Bantams. Moments earlier, those at the game could be seen standing on the bleachers with coffee mugs in hand. The bleachers, which are made of metal, are a bit too cold to sit on. In fact, some fans didn't sit in the stands at all. They crowded around the plexiglass boards that surround the ice and watched from behind Steamboat's net, where goalkeeper Tim Higbee stopped 22 shots to help his team to victory.
The game took place Feb. 4.
The constant shouting, whistling and clapping by the hometown fans is a reflection of how the sport of hockey has grown more and more popular in Steamboat Springs. That also rings true in other western Colorado towns with youth hockey organizations, such as Kremmling and Oak Creek.
Since the arrival of the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, more local youths have taken an interest in the sport. That especially holds true in Steamboat, where more than 200 individuals now participate in the youth hockey program. Nearly 20 years ago, the program was comprised of about 25 individuals who played on three teams. There are now 16 teams in the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association.
In Oak Creek, about 55 kids make up the local hockey program. Oak Creek has four teams that go by the name the Kodiaks. In Steamboat, the players are known as the Braves, a name that is credited to Frankie Wheaton and Jerry Dunn, two old-school hockey players who started the program in 1983. They were sitting in a warming house one night when Wheaton came up with the Braves.
Hockey has come a long way in Steamboat, said John Seymour, the director of coaching. It has grown nearly six-fold in Steamboat for three reasons, he said.
The Colorado Avalanche, who moved to Denver in 1995, have been a major inspiration on young athletes and have helped draw more kids into hockey. Just ask Chad Barczuk, a 17-year-old Steamboat Springs student who plays on one of the midget teams.
"I think it's the Avs and the Mario Lemieuxs and the Wayne Gretskys that are just giving the influence to the kids," Barczuk said. "I just think hockey is going to pick up and be the main sport here now."
The Avs are not the only reason for the hockey explosion in Steamboat. Just 18 years ago, the census of the town was 5,098, according to numbers provided by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association. In 2000, there were about 9,000 people in Steamboat. The influx in the town's population and the Avs' winning of the Stanley Cup in 1996 are two reasons why popularity for the sport is expanding locally, Seymour said.
The third reason why more kids are starting to pick up the sticks and put on the pads, Seymour said, is that Howelsen Ice Arena is more appealing than it was 18 years ago.
In 1983, the arena rested at the rodeo grounds at Howelsen Park, where fans often braved frigid weather to see the Steamboat Braves play. That arena did not have a roof, which meant a shorter season that ran from late December through late February.
Many of the Braves' teams now play well into March after beginning their season in November or early December, which was made possible in 1996 when a $750,000 roof was installed over the arena.
In 1991, a new refrigeration system was installed and an Olympic-sized ice sheet and new dasher boards were added for about $1.2 million.
Stacey Foster, the ice rink manager, said more plans lie ahead. Youth hockey officials hope to have a new refrigeration system installed within the next few years to replace the older one. Locker rooms and additional seating also are part of the plan.
One of the goals of the hockey program is to field a high school team within the next three years, but in order to do so, something must be done about the seating, Foster said.
The arena currently holds nearly 400 people, but that is not an adequate number to seat a high school crowd on hand for a hockey match, Foster said. In the near future, plans call for adding 400 seats.
Oak Creek still plays host to its games at its outdoor rink, though it has seen some improvements the past several years, said Wayne Olsen, director of coaching.
Hockey is on the uprise locally, but the sport continues to present challenges for local officials. One of the toughest issues they face is the dilemma of figuring out how to divide up equal ice time for each of the teams. With one sheet of ice, that is not an easy task.
Howelsen Ice Arena rents 823 hours of ice time to youth hockey teams each year at a cost of $105 per hour. That sum, which adds up to more than $86,000 per year, helps pay for the costs to keep the facility running.
Nearly 250 individuals play in the youth hockey league, while another 350 take part in the adult hockey league.
"Ice time is huge," Foster said. "It's a challenge to juggle the ice time so everyone has enough time each week to enjoy the sport."
Balancing a shortage of ice time may be one problem, but some say a more serious issue is the pressures that parents and coaches put on kids who play hockey.
Jim Fournier, who owns Steamboat Blades, said the local youth hockey association has shifted from a recreational program to a competitive program, which has taken the joy away from the game.
"It was strictly a recreational program when it started off," Fournier said. "That has changed drastically. Now, there is structure along with competitive traveling teams only for those who can make the team and afford it."
Fournier says coaches and parents put too much emphasis on the winning aspect.
He also says that competitive hockey is extremely costly.
Registration fees alone can run as high as $825. Throw in hockey equipment and that total rises to about $1,500.
The competitive hockey teams, or traveling teams, demand even greater financial commitments from parents who must pay for hotel and food expenses when on the road.
John Worden, who coaches the Steamboat Catamount Mites, shares a difference of opinion with Fournier. He points to the fact that there also are house teams in the youth hockey league that do less traveling and play shorter seasons. The Catamount Mites ended their season Jan. 6.
On the lower-level house teams, Worden said, the emphasis is on teaching the basics, not on chalking up victories.
"At the Mites level, we're there to show them how to have fun at hockey," Worden said. "To de-emphasize winning and losing is a very vital part of Mite hockey."
Jim Dingle, who coaches the Midget traveling team, agrees with Worden. Dingle, whose team won a state championship a couple of years ago, said that hockey is not competitive until the players make it to the high school level. Players on the midget teams are 15 to 17 years old. There are two midget teams, including a house and a traveling squad.
Dingle said that hockey teams at that level are no different than traditional high school sports teams, like basketball and football teams that compete for trophies and titles.
The majority of the kids and coaches that make up the hockey program will say the sport is beneficial in a number of ways. It teaches the team aspect of participating in a sport along with discipline.
Worden, who has been coaching for four years, says he believes the program will continue to thrive in Steamboat.
"I think the future is very bright," Worden said. "I think it will continue to be a very viable program. One thing that will assure that is the next phase of the development of the rink. When it becomes a completed project and the facility is finished, that will really top it off really nicely."
Tara King, a 13-year hockey player who is on the girls' U-15 and U-19 teams, said hockey has been a positive outlet for her during her brief career.
"I think that it's a real team sport and I just love our team," King said.