Grizzly Road Warriors: Grand Junction hockey players commuting to play in Glenwood Springs
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Greg Mundorf doesn’t mind all of the extra miles he’s putting on his vehicle. After all, he thinks the tradeoff that comes when he gets to the Glenwood Springs Community Center Ice Rink from Grand Junction is more than fair.
“The main reason is that we have a very skilled group of boys here,” said Mundorf, an assistant coach for he Glenwood Springs Grizzlies Midget Major hockey team who lives in Glade Park west of Grand Junction. “The numbers of kids who came out for hockey in [Grand Junction and Glenwood] were low, so it made sense to combine the group. It’s been great.”
The long drive has its obvious pitfalls, but there’s been more positives than negatives for the parents and players who are willing add an extra 600 miles a week in travel time to hit the ice. The increased competition has been the biggest drawing point for the major- and minor-level teams, which between them have nine players from the Grand Junction area who play in the Glenwood Springs Youth Hockey Assciation (GSYHA).
They’re not the only ones. All total, according to director of hockey TK Kwiatkowski, more than two-dozen players at all levels are making the drive from Grand Junction not only to practice in Glenwood, but to be a part of a team that plays in towns like Craig, Steamboat Springs, Gunnison, Vail and Aspen. One player, Hyland Barabie, catches a ride with his under-14 Grizzlies teammates from DeBeque.
But there are two predominant, driving forces that keep an increasing number of players of all ages coming to Glenwood to play. The first was the absence of the Glacier Ice Arena in Grand Junction, which had been closed since June of 2010 before it reopened in November of this past year. The other is the higher level of on-ice play that exists in Glenwood, of which nearly every player who makes the drive can attest to.
“The competitive level down there isn’t where we’d like it to be,” said Brody Bittner, who lives in Grand Junction and plays for the Grizzlies’ U14 team. “There’s not enough people there who have played and have experience.”
That’s definitely not a problem with GSYHA, which has been running since 1997 and recently helped produce a Division I women’s hockey player in Ari Buxman of Glenwood Springs. It also has kids who play hockey annually, starting from the Pee-Wee to the high-school level Midget Majors.
Some of those people making that massive commute, however, would have wanted to play in Grand Junction had Glacier been open. But, that didn’t happen until two months ago when many hockey parents had already made plans for the upcoming season months ahead of time.
Glacier shut down because of a faulty refrigeration system underneath the ice, which was fixed thanks to investors who helped fund the project that would reopen the rink. Word was out about reopening the rink by late September, but the rink’s general manager, Tom Harmon, conceded that the higher-level players are better off in Glenwood this season, leaving the players in Grand Junction who just started playing a more-local option.
“We’re hoping that we can have a travel hockey team by next season,” Harmon said. “There’s obviously some players who are at the higher levels who aren’t getting the ice time they want. That’s where my program comes into play.”
The overall travel cost, however, is huge for a family.
“It costs about $50 a trip,” said Paul Hicks of Fruita, the father of U14 player Jeff Hicks. He added that the expense that comes with the commute could force his son to play in Grand Junction.
Carpooling is a big part of the deal for everyone coming from the Grand Junction area. Tyler Bittner, a coach with the U14 team, lives in Grand Junction and works in Parachute. Parents drive to Parachute to meet Bittner halfway to Glenwood, and the coach drives the players back home at close to midnight following a 7:45 p.m. practice.
That doesn’t take into account travel on game days, either. The time spent on the road doesn’t take anything away from the kids’ level of play, however, and some don’t plan to change even with Glacier available.
“I think with the level our team is at now, it would really put a wrench in the progress of our players if we broke up the team,” said Mundorf, whose team includes players from Fruita Monument, Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs high schools. “It’s nice to see that kind of success.”
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