Feels like home on this ice

Local hockey bunch boasts open-arms attitude for players

Posted: Friday, January 22, 2010

Tom McKenzie is not a fan of summer; he prefers the cold winter months that breed chilling temperatures, snow-covered mountains and, most importantly, ice.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

And, apparently, he's not alone.

There are more than 300 participants in the Juneau Adult Hockey Association's 2010 winter competitive season, and about 200 kids participating in the Juneau Douglas Ice Association. Many most likely enjoy Juneau's balmy summer months, but quite certainly all enjoy the open-arms attitude of Juneau's hockey community.

It was through word of mouth that Caroline Schultz first experienced the local hockey hospitality. A newcomer to the sport, Schultz had never played anything besides pond hockey before joining a co-ed team this past fall.

"I'd heard a lot of positive things about hockey in the community," she said. "And I talked to people who said it's the best thing they've ever done."

And while she admits her skills were less than ideal and knowledge of the sport limited, Schultz is back again for a second season.

"I was blissfully ignorant, but I had so much fun," she said. "And I never felt like I shouldn't be there."

"Hockey Tom," as McKenzie is called by peers and co-workers, has worked at the Treadwell Arena as a recreation activity leader since its opening in spring of 2003. He said he lives and breathes hockey, and plays on two different JAHA teams. He's one person who has seen the program grow from nothing to a big something.

"(Back then), Juneau did have a hockey team that would travel, but there was no rink to play in," he said. "So as a whole, there's a lot of people that are new to the sport and it's grown pretty well."

When JAHA first formed in 2002, there were only two tiers - one for "beginners with some hockey experience" and another for "more experienced players." Both were co-ed.

Now, the nonprofit has grown to include five tiers, consisting of four co-ed and one women's tier. Within each tier are four teams comprised of about 12 players each.

McKenzie said the skills of the players is something of a melting pot, and that's what makes the program successful.

"There's some places, like Anchorage, where people have trouble getting into it because it's so established," he said. "It's really easy to get into hockey here. People don't get left out. It doesn't matter if you can skate, and often, the more experienced players will help out the less experienced players."

In an environment with no formal coaching structure and no organized practice times, participants like Schultz and McKenzie say the group learning environment is a surprising success.

"I was surprised at how there wasn't a specific management schedule," Schultz said. "It's much more about organicleadership."

And it works. Even the referees will give pointers, McKenzie said.

Matt Boline, a Juneau resident and lifelong hockey player who transplanted from Minnesota about seven years ago, said he's lived in a lot of different communities, but has never seen such an adult interest in the sport and the fans to support it.

"From people who have never put skates on to those that played in college, the support and interest in hockey here is great," he said. "There's a lot of people who are eager to listen and learn."

Chip Verrelli, a coach and president of JDIA who also participates in JAHA, said the youth version of the adult league is a program that also harbors an open-arms attitude.

"If want to play hockey in Juneau, you can play hockey," he said. "Even if you don't have the funds or the means, we havescholarships."

And like JAHA, it's paid off.

"Youth hockey in Juneau has grown quite a lot," Boline said. "When we first started, some kids had only played hockey for a few weeks. Now the kids can compete with Fairbanks, for instance."

Just last year, JDIA claimed the Pee Wee state championship.

Boline, who also coaches high school hockey, said the bleachers at Treadwell arena are often full during JDIA games and when youth see that kind of encouragement, it creates a breeding ground for improvement.

"The kids see the support from the crowds and it makes the kids want to get better, to play better," he said.

Currently, the arena is operating at full capacity. The ice is only vacant from midnight to 6 a.m., meaning games are being played into the darkest hours of the night, and practices begin hours before the sun creeps over Douglas Island.

A deterrent for participants? Nope.

"It's worth slogging through the day after," Schultz said. "Just drink a lot of coffee and try not to talk to people before 10 a.m. And on the bright side, it doesn't conflict with other activities, such as community groups or social gatherings. (In fact), there's not much that will conflict with a game that starts at 10 p.m. For the majority, it's just a great experience and a new sport that is bringing people together."

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com or 523-2271.

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