Steamboat Springs Emotion and spirit are both parts of youth sports, but at a hockey game last month, they got the better of those involved. Local coaches want to put the incident behind them and are confident no problems will arise when the teams meet again Sunday.
During the Ski Town Hockey Festival Dec. 5-8, a consolation game between Steamboat's Midget Minor A team and the Front Range Amateur Hockey Association's Midget Minor team ended with alleged punches, a police escort and a series of letters to the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Steve Clough, a parent of a player on the Aurora-based Front Range squad, wrote a letter that appeared in the Jan. 12 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today, accusing the Steamboat team of overly aggressive play that tarnished his image of the community and its hockey program.
"... It is unfortunate that a few members of your high school hockey team and a coach whose focus was on revenge, have so drastically altered my respect for your community," Clough wrote.
Pete Arnold, volunteer coach for Steamboat's Midget Minor team, and Aaron Finch, president of the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association, each wrote letters to Steamboat Today in response to Clough's criticism of the local program.
Members of the Steamboat high school hockey team, watching from Front Range's side of the stands, were indeed out of line during the course of the game, Arnold said. Had he known the extent of what the high schoolers were saying, "I would have called timeout and walked over and kicked them out myself," Arnold said.
The teens were eventually escorted away by event staff.
But Arnold said there is little validity to Clough's claim that he is an incompetent coach who was out for revenge after the Front Range team beat his Steamboat squad earlier in the tournament.
"I think every coach and every player on every team in their playing career will run into a heated situation in a hockey game," Arnold said. "The potential is there for any hockey game to get out of control."
However, Arnold said, the officials have a considerable amount of control over the physicality of a game. The penalties in the controversial game were relatively even on both benches, indicating the Front Range squad did its share of hitting, Arnold said.
What Clough failed to mention in his letter, Arnold said, was the Front Range team's lack of sportsmanship.
During the post-game handshake line, Arnold said the Aurora team's coach punched him in the stomach, and the Front Range players cussed at the Steamboat team. In response to the alleged punches, Arnold said he swore at the coach, but did not return the blow, and walked away.
The exchange of unpleasantries spilled over into the Howelsen Ice Arena hallways, prompting the authorities to be called to escort the Front Range squad out of the building.
The same two teams are scheduled to meet again Sunday night in the Slapshot Tournament in Littleton.
Dave Strang, Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association director of player development, said Thursday he plans to call the Littleton tournament director about possibly altering the schedule so the two teams don't meet. If that's not possible, Strang wants the officials to call a tight game and be conscious of the behavior of both teams' fans.
Finch thought it was unfortunate parents took their concerns to the newspaper's editorial pages rather than the associations' heads, who are more attuned to the situation and the game of hockey.
However, Finch, Arnold and Strang all said they want to put the issue behind them and focus on the rest of the season. Finch wants people to realize that in all likelihood there will be no further problems.
"I think these incidents are very isolated," Finch said. "And I don't think it's just hockey. One concern we have is that people think it's just hockey. It's youth sports. It's a broader problem."