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Tharp makes lifelong goals

G. Sean Kelly
Post Independent Staff

Ice hockey isn’t generally thought of as a low-impact, lifelong sport.

Jumping horses is arguably even more dangerous than hockey.

Still, hockey and horse jumping are two of the activities Heather Tharp, who celebrated her 72nd birthday on Monday, chose to help feed her seemingly unquenchable youthful spirit.

Or, to hear the Silt grandmother tell it, those are the sports that chose her.

“It takes everything that you have,” said the Glenwood Springs Ice Queens defenseman of her favorite pastimes. “It exercises your complete body and mind too. You have to figure out what the horse is thinking and you have to figure out what the opposing team is thinking. Hockey is beautiful exercise ” wonderful exercise that does the whole body.”

Tharp’s gray hair is just barely visible under her helmet. Behind her facemask she wears glasses and has the ruddy complexion of someone who has never shied away from working or playing in the outdoors, regardless of weather conditions.

From a distance there’s no differentiating Tharp from her Ice Queens teammates, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s. But stick around long enough, and the excitement overwhelms Tharp. She becomes easily identifiabe when she lets out a high-pitched “YIP-YIP.”

“It’s just me. I can’t help it,” Tharp says of her occasional outburst.

The passion for hockey that Tharp is at times unable to contain may be a key to her longevity in a sport typically thought of as a young person’s game.

“It’s a disease ” a very good disease,” Tharp said of hockey. “Just wonderful experiences, winning or losing.”

The hockey bug is one many of her teammates hope they are lucky enough to catch.

“Heather is a shining example of a vibrant senior in our community,” said Jeanne Golay, who is often Tharp’s defensive partner during Ice Queens’ games. “She’s like the Energizer Bunny. She gets knocked down and gets right back up every time.

“She comes out to drop-in with the men, and that takes guts and dedication and she’s obviously trying to learn more,” Golay added. “I hope I have the kind of bone density she does when I’m that age.”

Tharp’s son Ham Tharp, the head coach of the Ice Queens, attributes his mom’s longevity in hockey to something other than bone density.

“It’s probably her frugal New England upbringing in upstate Vermont,” he said. “They build them pretty tough up there.”

Heather skated occasionally on the Passumpsic River while growing up in the town of the same name, with a population of less than 200 people. She didn’t pick up hockey until Ham began playing in Aspen.

She and a group of other hockey moms created the Aspen Mother Puckers in 1974 and took on all comers. The Puckers ” which Heather Tharp described as a “novelty” in its early days ” was one of the first women’s teams in Colorado, leaving the choice of opponents limited. Much of the competition was against Aspen Junior Hockey teams and men’s pickup teams with monikers like the Ice Eaters and the Male Chauvinist Pigs. The winner claimed the Perpetual Bouquet Cup, also known as the B-cup.

Tharp took some time off from hockey after moving from Aspen to Silt. When the Community Center opened its rink a few years ago she jumped at the chance to resume her playing career and become a charter member of a second women’s hockey team.

It’s definitely a family affair for the Tharps when it comes to hockey. Along with Ham as head coach, Heather’s daughter, Amanda Stephens, and daughter-in-law, Janet Tharp, are players on the Ice Queens team.

On the ice, however, there’s no playing favorites for family, even if it is Mom.

“It’s very professional,” Golay said. “You don’t ever see any family squabbling going on. (Ham) never says ‘Mom’, he always calls her Heather and treats her just like the rest of us.”

Of course Heather’s appraisal of Ham’s coaching and playing is the sort you would expect from a doting mother, even if she’s not officially “Mom” during practice or games.

“I welcome anything he says to me because he’s such a beautiful player,” Heather said. “I go to his games and watch because he plays defense too. Anything he does, I love to see so I can learn from it.”

Said Ham: “That’s a little embarrassing. I have a little more realistic view of my coaching.”

But one can’t argue with results. The Ice Queens, in just their third competitive season, are 6-0-1 in league games this season.

The aches and pains after the games now aren’t a whole lot different from when Heather started playing the game 30 years ago.

Again, she takes little credit for the toughness, but instead says it’s because “you get so high, it’s so stimulating” playing hockey.

“I maybe am not quite as fast as I used to be ” maybe,” she said. “But it’s wonderful when you find yourself in the right place at the right time.”

She plays a somewhat fearless style of defense and is known for attempting to hold the blue line at all costs ” with a good deal of success.

“To me it’s become normal,” Ham said. “She’s been doing it my whole life with the exact same intensity. It doesn’t seem out of place or extraordinary.”

Ham admits when he takes a step back, it is pretty amazing that Heather is still as active in rough-and-tumble sports as she is. Also, at times, it’s a bit nerve-racking when there’s a big collision or crash into the boards.

“I haven’t seen the ‘Oh God, this is too much’ reaction. I figure she’ll know when to quit,” Ham said.

And it would take some serious convincing for Heather to hang up her skates.

“I told my children that if I died riding horseback or playing hockey, then they would know that I died happy,” Heather said.


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