Steamboat Youth Hockey gets creative, perseveres through 2020-21 season
Special to Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The 2020-21 Steamboat Stampede Youth Hockey season brought a set of challenges that the sport has never before encountered. With the uncertainty of the season, there was a strong unified message: Do what it takes to save our season and keep our kids engaged in hockey. For some kids, it is the only group interaction they get while participating in remote learning. Their physical health, mental health and general well-being is supported by participation in youth hockey. Providing a sense of normalcy and camaraderie in an environment that changes by the minute has been more important than ever this year.
“The hardest part of this season so far,” 11-year-old Steamboat Stampede player Shea Shorland said, “is we haven’t gotten to hang out with our team as much or have as many games.”
When they have been able to come to the rink, their faces light up when they see each other for practice, and the team unity is evident as teams grow together.
“They continue to stay on top of the challenge of the ever changing rules, creating an opportunity where youth hockey can still operate and also stay within the compliance of the county and the state,” Steamboat Stampede Youth Hockey Director Ryan Dingle said.
One of the changes is visible as soon as you walk in the door of Howelsen Hill Ice Rink. A tablet is positioned on a stand when you walk through the door. The device senses body temperature, flashes the reading in green across the screen and says “normal temperature.” Players, coaches and spectators are then allowed to proceed into the rink.
A major change that programs across the country had to adjust to is that players and coaches are required to wear a mask while playing the fastest game on ice. If the mask falls below the nose, the referee issues a warning to that team. The Steamboat Stampede organization supplied each player and coach with a Steamboat Stampede buff to support this new safety measure.
In late fall, everything changed. The city of Steamboat Springs went level red on the state’s COVID-19 dial, which meant no gatherings inside with more than 10 people. This put an indefinite end to team practices. Ice practices went to Zoom practices. Players traded seeing each other on a sheet of ice to seeing each other on a screen. Coaches got creative with off-ice challenges, sharing links to watch professional game footage and providing hope and encouragement that our rink would once again open to continue the season.
“The best unforeseen positive is appreciating every opportunity you get to play hockey,” U12 coach Diane Dwire said. “In the past, with hockey season being so demanding and so long, it was easy to take it for granted.”
Locker rooms that had been closed most of the season finally opened again. There is a 25% capacity, so few parents are able to watch practice, far different from last year when parents could gather in the lobby and in the bleachers to watch their children on the ice.
Away games were filmed so parents could later see their child’s strong hustle or winning goal after the game by clicking a link on their smartphone. A few outdoor games finally gave parents the opportunity to see their child play and their child a moment to feel family support at the game.
“We are very fortunate to have an Olympic sheet here in Steamboat,” Steamboat Stampede President Kerry Shea said. “When the facility closed due to COVID, it forced us to get creative and seek new places to stay active. The closure, on a very positive note, gave us an opportunity to get back to our roots where kids grab their sticks, skates and jump out on the pond.”
The rink closure offered some unexpected recreational opportunities for these mountain town youth hockey players.
The teams played at Hahns Peak Lake, an alpine lake in North Routt that proved to be quite a treat for hockey players and their families. Parents and coaching staff shoveled snow for hours and even flooded the rinks in the middle of the night. This created an opportunity for grassroots hockey, feeling the joy of skating outside, passing the puck to a teammate all while breathing in the mountain air and the kids feeling the sunshine on their faces.
Hahns Peak Lake sits high in the mountains surrounded by strong and sturdy evergreen trees, creating a scenic beauty and grassroots experience that stays etched in one’s memory. The rink closures encouraged creativity, new traditions were created and cherished memories of outdoor hockey in the mountains have been made. The minutes turn into hours, and the day quickly turns to dusk on a frozen pond.
When a league game was canceled last minute in Breckenridge for the Steamboat Stampede U19 girl’s squad, the team sought an alternative. In the neighboring town of Keystone, the team suited-up and enjoyed an unexpected, beautiful bluebird morning on the outdoor pond, which included full regulation boards and nets.
Another game of pond hockey in a ski town quickly ensued. The kids had a blast. A player’s creativity evolves in small areas and unsupervised play. It’s a time when players can discover their own unique style and learn without limits. The joy of hockey grows deeper and gets into the heart and soul of the players with each fresh, innovative experience.
“This community has an amazing staff and membership that has pulled together,” according to Dingle.
Hockey has been a lifeline not only for youth hockey in Colorado but across the country. Hockey teams become family, and it’s a hockey family that is bonded together throughout the nation.
“Possibly one of the greatest lessons for youth players this year amidst the uncertainty was to live in the moment,” Shea said. “Things can change at any time, so be present, be there and soak it in.”
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Continuing a long tradition of success in 4-H shooting sports, the Routt County team performed well at the state level and qualified four senior participants in five disciplines for nationals.