No games, but plenty of fun

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Western hockey team channels energy into supporting youth program

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  • When their own games kept getting canceled, the Western Colorado University men’s club hockey team turned their attention to helping out the Gunnison Valley’s youngest aspiring players. Youngsters get a helping hand on the ice from their Mountaineer big brothers. Courtesy
    When their own games kept getting canceled, the Western Colorado University men’s club hockey team turned their attention to helping out the Gunnison Valley’s youngest aspiring players. Youngsters get a helping hand on the ice from their Mountaineer big brothers. Courtesy

This past fall, Wendy Buckhanan found herself in a pickle.

She’s the executive director of the West Elk Hockey Association and it’s her job to ensure youth hockey in the Gunnison Valley goes off without a hitch.

Not only is that difficult in the era of COVID-19 closures and restrictions, but factor in the pent-up demand from kids and families to break the chains of isolation and social distancing and it was like a double whammy.

“At the `U8’ level, it was a perfect storm,” she said.

The demand from the community’s youngest aspiring Gretskys, those under the age of 8, to give hockey a try had skyrocketed, from 32 fall league players in 2019 to 68 for this past season, which ran from October through mid-December.

The high level of interest was great, but how do you ensure those kiddos — some of whom may still be learning the intricacies of tying their shoes, let alone lacing up skates, donning layers of protective hockey gear and stepping out onto a frozen fall factory — have a positive experience?

“When you have a group of kids rushing through the door who have never stepped on the ice, it takes a lot of people to hold them up,” Buckhanan explained.

COVID-19 rules limited group sizes in the Jorgensen Event Center, which hosts the valley’s only indoor rink for fall season. This meant there were a lot of U8 practices, needing a lot of helping hands.

Enter the Western Colorado University men’s club hockey team. This group of 16 Western students had hoped to be participating in a fall season themselves, but the pandemic dumped cold water on their competitive ambitions.

“The guys had a lot of excitement and energy that kept fizzing out because all of our games kept getting canceled,” explained Daren Glover, a Gunnison native with a long hockey background who’s coached the Mountaineers for the past five years. “We tried to focus that energy in positive ways and transitioned from competing to helping out with something just as important.”

The Western players became coaches for the many groups of U8 WEHA players that kept coming to the arena. At that level coaching was less like diagramming power play scoring strategies than making sure young Tommy had gone to the bathroom before putting on his pads.

“The Western players were there every time,” Buchanan reported. “And they were so engaged and helpful. The parents loved them. The kids loved them. It was great.

“I really could not have run that program without their help.”

Not only did the Western team volunteer untold hours in support of youth hockey in the valley, but they also held internal fundraisers and donated those proceeds to the local Tough Enough to Wear Pink effort.

Glover explained that some team members had had personal connections with cancer and the group felt it important to support that cause locally.

After a holiday break, hockey is back in action in the Gunnison Valley. Coordinating the WEHA program is a little easier for Buckhanan, in part because now three outdoor rinks are available for scheduling.

The Western players are coming back to town, too, still hoping to get at least a few games in but ready to help out where they can.

“I had guys at the MiniMites game last night,” Glover explained earlier this week

(Chris Dickey can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or publisher@gunnisontimes. corn.)