Olivero: Summit Hockey finds new opportunity for young players after Bolts folding
BRECKENRIDGE — In a county like Summit where there are so many strong youth sports programs, it can easily go overlooked how difficult it is to build and sustain a program. It’s not overnight that clubs like Team Summit and Team Breckenridge become institutions. It’s far from easy to build something like Maverick Sports’ Summit Mountain Challenge mountain bike series. It takes years for a juggernaut like the Summit High School girls rugby program to become what it has.
In a lot of ways, the reality here in Summit County is that various sports — from more traditional ones like Alpine skiing to newer sports like ski mountaineering — are all interested in recruiting a finite number of young athletes. With long-term plans in mind, the Summit Hockey youth program based in Breckenridge has taken a new, if not novel, approach to bringing in players from around the county.
And, a year in, it seems to be working.
Let’s rewind to last year. With the folding of the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League, the Breckenridge Bolts — a league for highly-skilled players between the ages of 16 and 20 — didn’t have anywhere to play as the 2018-19 season approached. That left Summit Hockey and its director Chris Miller in a tough position. Should Summit Hockey retain the Bolts program at a much higher cost in a more expansive league that travels all over the West Coast? Or, could Summit Hockey save money or reallocate the donated funds devoted to the Bolts in a different way?
After Summit Hockey’s board deliberated last summer, Miller said the entity decided to go to its donors and ask if they’d like their contributions back or if they’d like to use them in a different way. The program’s idea was to use the Bolts funds to pay for Summit Hockey’s entry-level program, the “Mites,” to make it free for first-year boys and girls under 8 years old.
To Miller and others with Summit Hockey, if their donors agreed to reallocate the funds, the idea would help Summit Hockey in a trickle-up effect. Miller said in recent years the program has struggled to recruit players and retain consistent kids at a younger level. Describing a youth program as “working like a pyramid,” Miller said when the numbers aren’t there at the lower level, it’s hard to find success at older ages in more competitive divisions.
With about $30,000 freed up, donors decided to go with the program’s novel idea: to make the Mites program free for any and all who wanted to try out hockey. The program subsequently used $13,000 of the $30,000 saved by the folding of the Bolts to purchase all equipment (except skates) to outfit dozens upon dozens of new players. The program also decided to alter the Mites format, playing at in-house jamborees at the Stephen C. West Ice Arena in Breckenridge rather than traveling to tournaments.
The idea of an (almost) free, full four-month season struck a nerve with many around Summit County. Between boys and girls, Miller said the Mites’ numbers ballooned from 25 to 40, on average, in previous years, to more than 100 last season. With the tripling in numbers, the Mites program separated the players out on the ice into different skill levels and focused less on sheer number of reps and more on putting the youngsters through fun, game-like situations.
Last year was so much of a success, that come Nov. 4’s first practice Summit Hockey will operate the same free-for-first-year policy again this winter. Miller said this year he expects about half — anywhere from 50–60 — of the Mites program’s players to be first-years. Miller said that will run Summit Hockey about $17K this year.
“We took a big gamble if it was going to work or not,” Miller said, “but tripling our numbers is a good sign of it working. And because of that, we were able to have three teams at the next level, which we’ve never been able to have before.”
That next level, Squirts, is receiving the trickle-up effect, already sporting one more team of 10 athletes at the 9–10 age level thanks to last year’s Mites who have moved up. Miller hopes that trend will continue, in turn making Summit Hockey more competitive up to high school ages.
Interested in playing with Summit Hockey this season? Go to summithockey.org to learn more and to sign-up.
“It’s definitely more competitive,” Miller said. “It’s bringing in a different type of athlete that may not have tried hockey before. But now that they can try it for free for one year, and a lot of kids are hooked.
“I think hockey feels like it’s a certain sport for a certain type of person,” Miller added, “but it’s not that at all. And I think just giving people an open door to try it out for a year, you get all different kinds of people from the community. It’s something that we are focusing on in our new culture, is that hockey is for everyone and we want to involve the entire community. There are no boundaries.”
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