Hockey still puts the ice in Howelsen

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Stop by the Howelsen Hill Ice Arena any day this winter and you will be exposed to the full spectrum of skating.

You might find young skaters just learning to keep their balance, or the members of the local figure skating club spinning and jumping at center ice.

But while the arena hosts a wide variety of different types of skating activities, there is no denying that hockey is king at the arena.

"It's the Howelsen Hill Ice Arena, not the Howelsen Hill hockey arena," manager Stacy Foster said. "But there is no doubt that this arena wouldn't be what it is today without hockey."

Hockey uses just over 58 percent of the ice time and generates about 60 percent of arena's total revenue.

Just about every day of the week hockey players use the ice and finding a weekend game is never difficult.

The arena's public skating sessions, which are supported by many hockey players and figure skaters, account for 12.5 percent of the arena's income.

The figure skating club brings in 11.5 percent of the revenue and uses about 14 percent of the available ice time.

Foster stresses that all of the arena's programs are important to the facility's success in the community, but she also realizes that the hockey programs are the driving force behind the arena's growth.

Adult hockey, which generated $155,300, and youth hockey, which generated $94,300 in 2003, represent a huge chunk of the dollars that come through the door each winter.

That's without hockey camps ($17,543) and initiation to hockey ($4,945) that represent another 4.9 percent of the revenue at the rink.

"Adult hockey has just exploded the past couple of years," Foster said. "It's more than clear that hockey players support this arena. Not only by playing in leagues, but also by taking part in public skates and other events."

As a result, the arena offers adults plenty of opportunities to get on the ice.

There is drop-in hockey, a variety of different leagues, and stick and puck clinics. There also are three women's teams based here playing in the Women's Association of Colorado Hockey league.

Steamboat also is trying to develop a men's competitive traveling team for the first time in several years.

While the adult group is now the largest user of ice time in Steamboat Springs, the impact of youth hockey cannot be overlooked.

The Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Associations buys 746 hours of ice time each year for practices, games, clinics and drop-in sessions.

Tony Lettunich, president of the SSYHA, said more than 200 children will take part in youth hockey programs this winter at Howelsen Hill. That group will represent 15 teams ranging from 5-year-old mites to 18-year-old midget majors. There also are three girls hockey teams slated to compete in Steamboat Springs this winter.

All of the teams in Steamboat Springs will play in either the Rocky Mountain Youth Hockey or Continental Divide Youth leagues.

The CDYHL tends to be a little more serious and is played at indoor ice arenas across Colorado.

The RMYHL is a little less intense and includes towns with outdoor and indoor rinks primarily in Northwestern Colorado.

"We want to provide an opportunity for kids in Steamboat to try a great sport like ice hockey," Lettunich said. "Our focus is still on helping children in Steamboat develop good hockey skills and sportsmanship. We think if we take care of those things, the winning will take care of itself."

Lettunich said the SSYHA is a great place for kids to improve their skating skills while learning the game of hockey. The association does expect its youngest players to arrive knowing how to skate.

To help youngsters ride through the ranks of Steamboat hockey, Foster has developed a hockey ladder. It's a progressive series of classes and league play designed to teach children hockey in an organized fashion, so they can enjoy the sport for a lifetime.

Foster said the best place for future hockey players to start is in the Learn to Skate program.

The program teaches children 4 years of age and older the skills of hockey including how to skate forward, backward, stop and turn. They will also learn crossovers during the half hour sessions.

Players will then advance to Initiation to Hockey, which focuses on the basic skills of puck handling, passing, and shooting. The program is intended for children who have passed basic level 2.

Mini-mites, the step between Initiation to Hockey and the formal Mites league, follows the initiation program. The SSYHA encourages this level of play before registering in the formal Mites League.

While the SSYHA programs have been hugely successful since they started in the early 1990s, Lettunich said the association is constantly looking for ways to get better and encourage new children to take part.

This fall, the arena offered a recreational program hoping to attract new players to the game.

The "Pond Hockey" league for players between the age of 7 and 12 was offered from September through October.

Lettunich said 40 children participated in the program, which is designed to be less intimidating that the more formal winter teams.

"It's just another way to get our children involved in hockey," Lettunich said. "In this program kids can come out and give hockey a try." n

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