This year, more than 220 children will take part in the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association. Another 200 people are expected to take part in adult leagues hosted by the city, which also runs popular learn to skate, initiation to hockey and mini-mites programs at Howelsen Ice Arena.
The numbers prove that the sport of hockey is alive and well in Steamboat Springs, a community that takes pride in being called Ski Town USA.
"Hockey is huge in Steamboat," said Christina Freeman, ice arena manager. "We have figure and open skating, but hockey really drives what goes on at the arena."
When Jerry Dunn founded the Steamboat Braves Youth Hockey program in 1983, people in the Yampa Valley questioned his sanity. How could hockey survive, let alone grow, in a town famous for its Champagne Powder, storied ski jumps and Olympic skiers like Buddy Werner?
But today, hockey is as much a part of winter in Steamboat as skiing and snowboarding.
It's estimated that hockey consumes about 52 percent of the ice time available at Howelsen Ice Arena and brings in about the same percentage of revenue each season. Hockey players use the ice just about every day of the week, and finding a weekend game is never difficult. The arena is open 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. This year, the area will feature standard public skate times at 10:15 a.m. every day and from 7 to 8:30 p.m. every Saturday. There also are public skating sessions after the learn to skate programs on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.
The city provides several entry-level hockey programs, but the bulk of young players pursue the game as part of the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association.
More than 200 players are competing this year said Heidi Walker, director of the association's administration. Those players pay between $275 to just more than $1,000, depending on age and ability, to be a part of the program
Teams range from the mites program for players younger than 8 to the midget level for high school players. Walker said the fees vary widely among those age groups.
The association features traveling teams and house teams. This year, most of the age groups in Steamboat Springs will compete in the Continental Divide Youth Hockey League and play games starting in October and ending in March. The only exception will be the midgets and the high school team. The midgets will play in the Rocky Mountain Youth Hockey League, and the high school team will play in the Colorado High School Activities Association. Steamboat is also home to several girls' teams, which play in their own leagues.
The city offers a recreational league for teams from Steamboat Springs. Those teams do not travel and are not focused on competition.
The SSYHA hosts several tournaments each year, including the Rocky Mountain Rumble from Nov. 10 to 12, the Ski Town Hockey festival from Dec. 1 to 3 and the Adele Dombrowski Girls tournament Feb. 9 to 11. The tournaments usually feature plenty of local teams to cheer for.
All three tournaments are fundraisers for the hockey association. The money is used for scholarships and other programs that make hockey affordable and available to every child in Steamboat Springs.
The Howelsen facility also is home to three adult hockey leagues that play from November to March. Based on ability, players can sign up to play in the coed B or C leagues. Peter Van De Carr also runs an adult A league at Howelsen.
The arena is home to four adult traveling teams. The Chix, Storm and Edge women's adult hockey teams call Howelsen home during the winter along with the men's competitive traveling team, the Coyotes.