Hooked on hockey

  • BOB MORTENSON / Herald Writer
  • Monday, October 6, 2003 9:00pm
  • Sports

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — This just in: The Snohomish County hockey forecast calls for growing interest with increasing patches of ice.

Sticks, pads and pucks are advised.

The arrival of the Everett Silvertips has punctuated the booming local interest in ice hockey. Opportunities abound for youths and adults to play competitively, particularly with the addition of a community ice rink at the Everett Events Center.

Enthusiastic youngsters (81 of them) ages 5-8 — slipping, sliding and laughing — turned up at Olympic View Ice Arena here Saturday for the winter beginners session of the Seattle Junior Hockey Association.

"The first day is always a bit hectic," said Regan Mueller, director of beginner programs for SJHA. "Three quarters of the kids have never been on the ice."

Mueller, a former Seattle Thunderbirds captain who retired as a player in 1995, says the first five weeks are spent learning how to skate before the kids move on to stick handling and mastering basic hockey skills.

"It’s amazing how much they progress by the end of the first year," said Mueller, who indicated that there may still be room for perhaps 15 beginning players to sign up for the program.

The SJHA is over 30 years old. There are about 575 players, up to age 18, currently participating. Director of Athletics Rick Ellison says SJHA is recognized as one of the premier junior programs in North America.

"The kids come first, but we’re like an old hockey bus," said Ellison, a former player and coach at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. "Players, coaches, administrators and parents … all four wheels have to be working together."

The heart of the player population is from south Everett, Bothell and Shoreline, but SJHA draws youths from a big area including Lake Stevens, Marysville and Monroe.

The season runs through late March and the cost is $150 for beginners. An additional $50 covers equipment rental for the entire season. That’s a considerable bargain for any parent who has ever forked over $225 for a softball bat.

"We’ve come here and tried to integrate some of the programs we had in Canada," said Mueller, a Saskatchewan native. "But this is way better than anything I had growing up."

Folks from Boston to Bothell agree.

Longtime player Bob Donati and his wife Gina just moved from the former to the latter. "Even in Boston they don’t have these kind of programs for this kind of cost," Donati said. "It’s just amazing. I never played organized hockey until high school because of the cost."

The Donati’s six-year old son Alex seemed to enjoy his first practice.

"He’s real excited," Donati said. "I started playing in a men’s league here and he wanted to get his equipment on and start playing."

Ellison grew up in Western Canada where the sports options were hockey, hockey and, of course, more hockey. He is keenly aware and supportive of the multiple options available to young people today.

"We’ve got kids coming in from football practice still in their pads and putting on their skates," Ellison said with a laugh.

Ellison estimated that about 7 percent of the players in the SJHA are girls.

Some continue playing coed hockey into their teenage years. Others switch to all-girl teams in order to prepare for playing in college or at a high amateur level. Many parents are simply not keen on the idea of their daughters playing against boys who frequently outweigh them significantly as teenagers.

The Western Washington Female Hockey Association (WWFHA) offers programs for girls ages 11-17. The group, which has players from Edmonds, Everett and Lake Stevens as well as North and East King County, has recreational opportunities for beginner and experienced players. Practices are held at Olympic View Arena and Highland Ice Arena in Shoreline.

WWFHA currently has room for at least 12-15 more players according to board member Shirley Williamson.

"We’ll just add another team if we get extra girls," Williamson said.

WWFHA also fields a midget-level team, the Washington Wild, for experienced players ages 14-17. The Wild play in the Pacific Coast League with most games held at the Great Pacific Forum in Delta, B.C., near Vancouver.

Williamson expects the number of girls playing hockey locally will continue to rise, especially with the interest in the Silvertips.

"Girls have been going to Thunderbird games and suddenly found out they could play too," Williamson said. "I think the same thing will happen with the Silvertips. It’s just a wonderfully fabulous game."

The opening of the Everett Events Center has put organized hockey opportunities closer to home for many Snohomish County residents.

When the center was open for public tours on Sept. 27 some visitors were pleasantly surprised.

"A lot of people came in expecting to see one rink and saw two," Ice Rink Manager Kyle Wintermute said. "They didn’t know there was a second sheet of ice and are just ecstatic to have the facility in their community."

The center is taking signups for adult hockey leagues and will offer beginning hockey clinics for ages 5-17 starting Oct. 21. Participants will attend one-hour sessions each Tuesday evening for six weeks. Additional clinics commence on Jan. 6, March 9 and May 4.

The initial focus will be on learning to skate, according to Wintermute.

Those who pick up skating more easily will receive additional instruction in basic hockey skills.

"Based on group skill level the activities will develop accordingly, but we don’t want the kids excelling quickly to be bored." Wintermute said. "It’s all about making it as fun for the kids as we can."

One of the goals of the clinics is to develop players for a full-fledged junior hockey program that Wintermute expects will start in March.

Interest has been high. Wintermute’s office was without telephone voice mail for two days recently. When the system was back on line his office had 60 messages from callers seeking information about hockey and other facility programs including speed and figure skating.

"It’s crazy, but good." Wintermute said. "We are very interested in helping youth programs grow."

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