Skating With Heart

The Vail Mountaineer Hockey Club Continues to Grow

Ice hockey is a fast-paced, team-oriented game that teaches kids life skills like responsibility, respect and discipline. But, the biggest draw seems to be the bonds both kids —and their parents— develop.

“It’s unique, in a way, to other sports in that everyone comes together; even the parents are close. There’s an excitement around hockey, because it’s very fast-paced, so everyone’s cheering and involved in the same goal,” says local hockey mom Denise Rahe.

Her son, 14-year-old Nathan Rahe, jokes that when you’re stuck in a cold rink together, you tend to get close, but the friendships extend beyond the arena.

Photo Courtesy of Sheri Innis Photography

“Hockey becomes secondary to the bonds they have with their teammates. It’s all about the experience —playing knee hockey, pizza parties, staying with their friends in a hotel,” says Kristi Scheidegger, executive director of Vail Mountaineer Hockey Club.

Many kids get involved because their dad, sibling or, in the case of 17-year-old Emily Law, grandma played hockey. Law enjoys the team aspects, like “having team dinners and rocking out to music in the locker room before games and encouraging team members to do their best and seeing a bunch of cool places in Colorado,” she says.

The hockey community also acts as a support system.

“Hockey was the one thing that always kept me going,” says college-student Jayden Mather. “On the days when I was having a really hard time at school, all I could think about was that I had hockey practice later on, and that would give me the motivation to keep going. Being on the ice with my team, the camaraderie, the fun environment, the adrenaline, the focus and challenge of being a goalie, the intensity of the game, having something that was challenging and exciting to put my attention on and get my mind off school were all things that really helped me.”

Last season, the hockey community showed its strength after 11-year-old Lewis Browning died tragically in the Lionshead parking structure. Less than 12 hours later, his team manager and coaches made the difficult decision between “staying home and grieving alone or being the cohesive team that Lewis loved and traveling to their upcoming tournament to grieve together, share stories together, cry together and skate together,” says team manager Ande Murray.

Lewis Browning in goalBrowning was the goalie, so, to pay respects, his team played with an empty net for the first three minutes of the game.“They played their hearts out,” Murray says. “They played for Lewis. They did not let one puck cross center ice. It was heartbreaking and beautiful at the same moment to see the fortitude, perseverance and pure love they showed for their missing friend and for one other; it was truly inspiring. We parents needed to be together as much as our kids did. There wasn’t a dry eye in the rink.”

Support, flowers and condolences poured in from teams across the state, and hockey sticks throughout the community still read: Play for Lewis #30.“The Mountaineer organization is a family, and when tragedy sadly and unexpectedly struck us last January, every single coach, player, parent and sibling stepped up to help in ways that I can’t even put into words,” Murray says. “The Mountaineer teams continued to do what Lewis loved for the rest of the season: play hockey, in honor of their teammate.”

Growing Numbers

With the Avs winning the Stanley Cup last season, the 2022 U.S. Olympic Women’s Hockey Team’s silver medal and local efforts to make the game more accessible in the Vail Valley, Vail Mountaineer Hockey Club continues to expand. This season, it added three more competitive travel teams and has seen a 171% increase in its girl’s program since 2018. About five years ago, Vail Mountaineers’ board of directors made it a priority to bring more girls into the game.

“Our numbers are growing, and hockey is growing nationwide,” Scheidegger says, crediting the National Hockey League’s nationwide Learn to Play program, as well as Mountain Recreation and Vail Recreation District, which introduce kids to hockey and make it affordable. “We offer the lowest hockey registration fees in Colorado because of our amazing fundraising and sponsors. Because of our incredible network, we subsidize 40% of costs.”

"The Mountaineer organization is a family, and when tragedy sadly and unexpectedly struck us last January, every single coach, player, parent and sibling stepped up in ways that I can’t put words to. "

Vail Mountaineers relies on about 40 volunteer coaches, most of whom are parents who played hockey within a range of levels, from high school to professional leagues.

“They’re more invested than a professional coach, because their kids are on the team,” says director of hockey Dave Bishop. “We have great support from the community and the parents. This program wouldn’t exist without it.”

The team’s biggest fundraiser is the Vail Sportsmanship Tournament, now in its 43rd year. It takes place over four weekends in November, with teams at different levels and ages traveling from Nevada, Arizona, Texas and regions of Colorado. Last September, Vail Mountaineers held its fourth annual Avalanche weekend, where former Colorado Avalanche players came to Vail for golf tournaments, meet and greets, youth clinics and a game against a local, semi-pro team.

But, despite the robust fundraising, volunteerism and enthusiasm, the local organization still has one main challenge: securing enough ice time. Between figure skating, public skating and other recreational ice times, it’s tough to schedule 14 teams three times a week.

“We have growing pains, so we have to work around them and get creative,”Scheidegger says. That mostly involves two teams practicing on half the ice in the same hour slot, or, during 90-minute slots, each practicing on full ice for 30 minutes and sharing ice for 30 minutes.

Enriching Kids

Like all sports, hockey encourages not just athleticism, but also personal development. “The sport is always challenging you to be better,” says Jayden Mather.

“Hockey is the motivating force for them to wake up every morning to go for a run and then work out before school and to bike to school and back and play different sports in the off-season, such as lacrosse, football, cross-country and soccer, so they can stay fit and in top shape for the hockey season. This motivation has resulted in tremendous self-discipline,” Jayden Mather’s mother, Melissa, says. “It has taught my kids to set goals for themselves: fitness goals, mastering new skills goals, self-improvement goals. It has taught them to be a team player, to always strive for the win and to show sportsmanship regardless of the outcome of the game.”

The club emphasizes good sportsmanship, rather than winning — though last season, four of its 11 teams earned the title of league champion.

“We try very hard to not make it a win-or-nothing mentality,” Scheidegger says.“We’re here to develop every kid into not just a hockey player but also a good teammate, and that translates to being a good classmate in school and a good co-worker later in life.”

Melissa Mather’s 14-year-old son, Cameron, says hockey has helped him build social skills, and, “It definitely brings me joy.” It also builds confidence.“It taught me skills, but it also reminded me of the things I could do and the skills I have—that I’m an important part of the team,” Law says. “It’s a very selfless game.”

In fact, success depends on teamwork. “It’s not a sport where one person can dominate, so you have to work together, and you get a great bond with your teammates,” Bishop says.

As a result, it hones communication skills.

“You have to be able to communicate with people mid-play under stressful situations,” says U-14 player Davis Place, adding that those communication skills “help if you have a bad grade — you can go talk to your teacher, and it’s a little less stressful.”

And, like all the other hockey players, 11-year-old Jules Mather has learned self-discipline, which she notes includes “having to be on time, not forgetting your gear, being respectful in the locker rooms and being kind to others.”

She plays on the co-ed team, “because it’s more of a challenge for me,” she says, adding that hockey “helps you with meditating and visualizing, and you can use that in your everyday life.”

So, if you have an urge to lace up a pair of skates, just beware; it might transform you.

“Once you’ve tried hockey,” Melissa Mather says, “it is hard not to have it become your life.