PHILIPSBURG — “Your eyes are always up,” Jay Harper reminded the gaggle of restless children.
His whistle blew and the line of kids took their turn skating around the tires on the ice skating rink in Philipsburg.
“Work on kicking!” coach Harper called out as the skates squeaked across the ice.
Open to kids as young as 5 all the way into high school age, the Philipsburg Ice Association’s youth hockey program draws players from Drummond, Hall and Anaconda to the rink on Wednesdays and Sundays.
The kids have gear provided to them and only pay a small fee to be involved in the program. Hockey can be a rich person’s sport, said Harper, who's coached the team since it began in 2013, when the association was formed. Gear can be pricey and rinks take a lot to maintain, so it can be expensive to run a program, meaning higher costs for those with an interest in learning the sport.
The Philipsburg Ice Association (PIA) wants hockey to be economically friendly for all walks of life, so the volunteer organization tries to keep costs low for the athletes and their families, Harper said.
While other teams have full time staff who can maintain the ice and facilities, the PIA is an all-volunteer organization. That meant that when inches of fresh powder dropped on the outdoor rink last week, volunteers pulled out backhoes, six-wheelers with plows, and trusty shovels to clear the ice before the kids' practice.
“We all try to chip in,” Harper said.
Inside the warming hut, kids pulled on their protective pads and safety gear. A contingent of players from Anaconda arrived together that day, well worth the 45-minute drive, parent Sean Dougherty told the Missoulian. His son Huck, 7, participates in the hockey program with his best friend, Bodhi, and Bodhi’s brother, Soren. As more parents and players arrived, the noise level in the warming hut rose.
“My socks are frozen!” Jake Dauenhauer exclaimed. He’d forgotten to take his hockey socks out of his bag to dry out.
Once on the ice though, the boys warmed up quickly, despite frequent falls on the ice and the chill as the sun set. Harper said that he focuses on drills with the young players so they get comfortable with skating and edge control. “The stick and puck come later in life,” he added.
Harper has been around hockey his whole life, including coaching a youth team in Billings for nine years before moving to Granite County.
“It’s a lifelong sport,” he said. The league frowns on head-to-head contact, and doesn't allow physical contact at all at younger ages, he explained.
“It’s all just puck and stick and finesse,” Harper said.
For now, he keeps things fun for the kids with obstacle courses, drills and scrimmages. Soren Keeland, a fourth-grader, said his favorite parts are those drills and the scrimmages.
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“I love the kids’ smile when they’re out there skating,” Harper said.
He said he wants the kids to have fun and learn a sport they can play their whole lives. With kids 6 or younger practicing at the same time as 15-year-olds, monitoring skill level and switching up the drills is important, Harper said. He pushes the older players a little harder, but tries to ensure they all have a good time.
In previous years, the team has been larger, with between 20 and 30 kids participating, but having inconsistent ice and an irregular schedule, and competing with other sports mean that numbers can fluctuate. Many of the girls who participated last year are in basketball now. This year there are about a dozen, Harper estimated.
The season also started later as the PIA got their roll-out refrigeration set up. With more than $100,000 from the Montana Office of Tourism, the PIA purchased a mat with looping tubes that carry refrigerant under the ice, keeping it cooler for longer. The area can still be used in the summer when the grass grows back, and with the lines, pump and electrical all set up, next year they will be able to get the ice started earlier.
The goal is to have consistent ice from November to March, Harper said.
With consistent, predictable ice, even at an outdoor rink, they will be able to host more events such as more adult tournaments, kids' tournaments, and even curling or figure-skating events, he mused. The PIA hosts the Brewer’s Cup Pond Hockey tournament every year, which brought 16 eight-man teams to the small town last weekend.
Consistent ice will also mean a more consistent schedule for the youth hockey players. More practices and scheduled games and tournaments would help recruit more players and allow the program to compete with some of the other sports for turnout.
“We’d have a whole car full of kids from Hall,” parent Tom Burden said of consistent practices. His son Trent loves hockey, and will come to the rink outside of practice just to skate. Trent wanted to be a goalie, his dad explained, so Harper set him up with all the pads and gear he needed.
Philipsburg is centrally located in terms of the other house leagues in the area such as Missoula, Helena and Butte, Harper noted. Next year they will roll out a new version of the team, the “Granite County Crushers,” a reference to the county's mining history and the stamp mills once prevalent in the area.
In the meantime, the handful of kids involved already feel the support from the volunteers and their parents, who carpool to practices and help the players get their bulky gear on, skates laced, or pick up a shovel themselves to get snow off the ice.
For them, the rink is one of the best-kept secrets in the area. The rink is open to the public, and lights that come on automatically at night extend skating time.
The kids plainly enjoy the rink and the hockey program as well, falling, getting back up, falling again and smashing their faces into the snow that fills their masks and covers their eyes.
“This is the only town I’ve played hockey in where the kids say ‘Thank you’ when you pass them the puck,” volunteer Scott Sylvester smiled.