Sarah Friemel, 9, is one of three girls who play hockey with the Glenwood Springs Youth Hockey Association’s Squirt team. Squirts are one of six age levels that make up the Glenwood Grizzlies, GSYHA’s official team.
Sarah is a third-grader at St. Stephen’s in Glenwood Springs and says she’s been playing ice hockey for three years. “My friends that are boys said it was really fun,” she told the Post Independent during a pre-Christmas practice at the Glenwood Springs Community Center. “I tried it, liked it, and so I keep playing it.”
Sarah’s blue eyes, bright smile, and a few wisps of strawberry blonde hair were all that were visible underneath a helmet and padding that made her look more like Iron Man than a lovely young girl. “We wear elbow pads, a chest pad, knee pads, breezers [hockey pants], a helmet, and gloves,” she explained.
All that padding, skates, and a hockey stick make for awkward walking through the lobby outside the rink. But once on the ice, Sarah is all grace and speed, skating backward and forward like she was born with skates on her feet. She likes to play defense because she gets to protect the goal. “You don’t have to go and get the puck and get tackled,” she said.
The Glenwood Springs Community Center rink has been home to the Glenwood Grizzlies since 2001. But, the team got its start about 15 years ago at a small, home-made rink at the old Glenwood Springs rodeo grounds. “The boards [that formed the rink] were only about knee-high and we flooded it with water,” recalled Tim Cota, who’s been with the team since 1998. “We were at the mercy of the weather,” he added. “If it was sunny, skating was out. It had to be cold and cloudy.”
Cota, who hails from Minnesota where ice hockey is a way of life, said there were about 40 kids on the team in 1998. “We saw a need in the Roaring Fork Valley,” he explained. “The [Colorado] Avalanche was doing well and there seemed to be a big interest.”
Since then, the size of the team has more than tripled. The locker rooms will be remodeled next summer but, said Cota, GSYHA could use an indoor rink. “We’re almost too big for the facility we have,” he said, adding that year-round ice would help boost the local economy. “If you have ice in summer and fall, the kids and their families will come to hockey camps,” he said.
Cota is the head coach of the Glenwood Grizzlies’ Midget team or what director Tim “TK” Kwiatkowski calls the “16U” or “18U” age level. “Midget Minors are age 16 and under and Midget Majors are 18 and under,” he explained. That leaves Bantam (14U), Pee Wee (12U), Squirts (10U), Mites (8U) and Mini-Mites (6U).
GSYHA is one of 14 associations that comprise the Continental Divide Youth Hockey League. That league is part of the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association. But, ultimately, youth hockey teams nationwide fall under the umbrella of USA Hockey, including the US Olympic Team.
“USA Hockey provides coach training,” said Kwiatkowski, also a Minnesotan and a certified Level 4 coach. “It’s the most stringent of all coaching rules.”
Kwiatkowski, 42, isn’t coaching any Glenwood teams now but he’s coached baseball, golf, and youth hockey since high school and plans to take Level 5 USA Hockey coach training this summer. He said coaching isn’t like it was in the old days. “It’s based on the American Developmental Model,” he explained. That means every age group has its own specific skills and learning abilities.
“When a kid is eight years old, we focus on basics like skating, shooting, passing, stick-handling and balance,” he said.
As the kids get older, other skills are introduced. Ten-year-olds learn positioning and how to protect themselves on the ice. Twelve-year-olds begin to learn teamwork.
And, at 14, said Kwiatkowski, the focus is on competition “The kids are ready to want to win,’ he said.
Coaching becomes mentoring once the kids turn 16. “My job as a coach is making sure [the kids] are doing the right things,” he said. “Coaches teach kids to be responsible for themselves.”
Keenan Winger, 13, plays left wing for the Glenwood Grizzlies’ Bantam team. He’s been playing ice hockey since he was five. The teamwork concept infuses his life and he learned about it while playing hockey. “You realize it’s not all about you all the time,” he said. “You can’t hog the ice and the puck. You have to share if you want to be good.”
Keenan said his coaches have motivated him. “You build character through hockey,” he added. “The world wouldn’t run with one person; it takes a group of people to succeed.”
GSYHA will host a USA Hockey “Try Hockey For Free” event in March, 2014 at the Glenwood Springs Community Center ice rink. And, Sarah Friemel encourages girls to sign up. “Don’t be worried about how many boys there are and stuff like that,” she said. “Once you try the sport, it’s fun and you’ll like it.”