Robert Hubka and his gung-ho teammates from Great Falls, Mont., have come to know one hockey drill better than any other. Long-haul truckers are well versed in it, as well. They call it white-line fever.
Every winter weekend across the arc of the hockey universe, thousands of young players leave their driveways bound to battle cross-town rivals in arenas that reside figuratively speaking in their backyard. Most will be home in time for supper and sleep in their own beds.
But these are foreign concepts to members of the Great Falls Americans.
In Montana, where Hubka is a first-year Bantam and one of only nine skaters on the roster, the rigors of belonging to a travel team would earn a sympathetic ear even from road-weary Odysseus.
“Driving a couple of hundred miles for two hockey games isn’t something that happens rarely in this state, not just for us, but for any Montana team. It’s the norm,” says Hubka’s father, Verne, a fireman when he isn’t chauffeuring epic shuttle runs. “Any time you can get to another town’s arena and back home in less than 250 miles, we consider it a short excursion.”
Last year, Hubka tallied up the hockey-related mileage recorded on his odometer after Robert skated for two different Peewee teams. The total: a whopping 20,350 miles.
“That’s all road miles,” he says. “We had to upgrade to a newer vehicle.”
Montana’s colossal size (it takes 10 hours to cross the state), combined with a sparse population (just 900,000 residents), limited number of indoor arenas and huge spatial divides separating hockey towns, makes it possibly the most geographically-challenged hockey state in the U.S., including Alaska or Texas.
From Squirts on up, it is common for youth teams competing in the A and B divisions of the Treasure State League to travel distances equivalent to that found between Minneapolis and Chicago. Families do it at least a couple of weekends each month over a five-month season.
“Our friends who have kids Robert’s age think that we’re maniacs and that we’ve lost our minds,” Verne Hubka says. “They can’t believe we do what we do but if you want to give them opportunities to play, you have to load up the car and go.”
Even by Montana standards, Great Falls represents a special hardship case. Two seasons ago, Cascade County Commissioners stunned the hockey community by voting to mothball the city’s only indoor ice facility, leaving 140 kids and 50 years worth of tradition high and dry.
“We used to be the beacon for amateur hockey in Montana but after the rink closed our numbers dropped in half,” explains Verne Hubka, who is also the president of the Great Falls Amateur Hockey Association. “Basically it forced us to have to start all over again.”
To prevent organized hockey from dying altogether, parents banded together with an aggressive campaign to retain as many skaters as possible. They bought ice for practices 115 miles away in Havre. They established an extensive dryland training program, and some families took out bank loans to contribute to construction of a new facility, scheduled to open this spring.
In the meantime, the Americans have been homeless and forced to practice and play all of their games on the road. But for every Montana community, their long journey is a familiar one.
Just 11 indoor ice arenas exist in the state, scattered across 147,000 square miles of mountains and high plains—an area that would fit all of New England neatly inside it, twice.
“I think the rest of the hockey world, which has an abundance of arenas and lots of available ice time, takes those things for granted,” says Kevin Stone, head coach of the Bozeman Icedogs Junior A Team.
“You don’t have those advantages in Montana, but it has made people appreciate what they have all the more.”
Every Friday, youth teams from Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, and Helena set out in caravans across the lonesome prairie to compete in league games in outposts like Glasgow on the other side of the state.
Young Montana players quickly learn that in addition to packing their gear, a suitcase, a backpack stuffed with homework, and another that holds their Ipods and video games, it’s smart too to bring a pair of binoculars and a wildlife-watching field guide. Along the highways, players are more likely to notch sightings of antelope, elk and coyotes than other people passing them by on the road.
The greatest obstacle is not the distance; it’s the expense, says Dianna Blom, a hockey mom from the copper mining city of Butte who has two teenage sons who have earned a dozen years of hockey road warrior experience between them.
With gas topping $3 a gallon, away games requiring at least a night’s stay in a faraway motel, and eating out in restaurants, every road trip costs out of pocket between $300 and $400. Multiply that by 15 times.
The perception anywhere you go in the U.S. is that hockey is a rich kid’s game, Blom says. But surprisingly, hockey in Montana remains a sport whose backbone is working class families.
To help defray travel costs, youth teams bag groceries for tip money, sell chocolate bars, and partake in skate-a-thons to amass travel war chests.
Logistically, road trips also mean that kids have to miss school in order to reach far-flung destinations. Many of the local hockey associations work with schools to ensure players study en route so they don’t fall behind in the classroom.
“Signing your kids up for youth hockey requires an extraordinary commitment,” suggests Matt Benedict, father of a 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son who both play for Glacier Hockey Association teams in Whitefish, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border.
Benedict says some Montana Squirts notch more miles—more than 3,000 miles— in a single 30-game season than high school kids in the three Ms (Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota) do in their entire prep careers.
“I would hate to stop and think how much time and money I’ve spent on hockey,” says Benedict. “The parents I know aren’t doing this because they are delusional and believe there’s a Div. I scholarship waiting for their sons and daughters at the end of the tunnel. They’re motivated by the pure love their kids have for the game.”
For Scott and Collette D’Agostino, trying to gather their four sons together for a family dinner during hockey season is nearly impossible.
On a recent weekend in January, one D’Agostino boy was headed north with his Peewee team to play in a tournament in southern Alberta; another was hitting the ice 400 miles away with his high school team in the eastern Montana cowboy town of Miles City; and a third was suiting up for the Bozeman Icedogs Junior team in Helena 100 miles away.
“We try to make as many games as we can,” says Collette D’Agostino. “Basically, we put our lives on hold for five or six months and just try to get through the season.
“We’re fortunate that we own a business and have a lot of flexibility, but we know there are a lot of families that aren’t so lucky.”
A few years ago, the D’Agostinos bought a 15-seat van to help make travel costs more affordable for players and family members who want to pile in. Scotch taped to the dashboard is an organized flow chart showing which kid is going with whom, how much they need for gas and travel money, phone numbers and the time when they are expected to arrive back in town.
One of the upshots is that the very same factors that cause hardship and parent fatigue create excellent tools for team building and learning how to overcome adversity.
In fact, USA Hockey’s Al Bloomer, a Montana resident and longtime national director of coaching, believes the distances have resulted in kids forming stronger friendships with competitors than in other states because the numbers of players are so small everyone knows each other by name.
For the Hubka clan, Verne says some of the best father-son talks he’s had with his son have been on marathon road trips.
“We don’t take vacations any more,” Verne says. “All of our family getaways revolve around hockey, but that’s okay because you see a lot of great places and meet a lot of great people along the way.”
Photos By Erik Petersen, David Scott Smith
Close-To-Home Hockey Is Close To Bloomer’s Heart
By Todd Wilkinson
In the Neil Young song “Hey Hey, My My,” the Canadian-born rocker croons: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
When it comes to kids and youth hockey, neither option is acceptable to Al Bloomer.
As a national coach-in-chief for USA Hockey, Bloomer has traveled across North America and Europe taking note of trends in developmental hockey at all levels of the game. Today living near the tiny mountain town of Red Lodge, Mont., he still is trying to give back to hockey at the grassroots level by creating a pyramid of youth involvement in a community where organized hockey did not exist until recently.
While Bloomer applauds the tenacity of hockey families in Montana (see main story), he says the toll of excessive travel should serve as a warning flag for programs across the country where hockey is suffering from falling numbers.
“We constantly fight the perception in this state that cost and travel are a problem,” says Bruce Bekkedahl, president of the Montana Amateur Hockey Association. “We are really trying to promote recreational hockey with house league programs and building up rivalries between communities that are close to one another.
“If hockey is going to remain viable, we need to reach out and get the associations committed to developing local rec programs.”
Bloomer cites study after study in the U.S. and Canada that offer similar conclusions:
“We’re not building the numbers base at the lower levels because local associations, especially at entry levels, have become too structured, too intense, and too travel oriented,” Bloomer says.
Although the number of girls and women playing in the U.S. is on an upward trajectory because of more opportunities, boys’ hockey is heading in the opposition direction from lack of retention. The drop-out rate is as high as 30 percent after the first year a boy enters a program and has charted as high as 70 percent between the ages of 6 and 13.
Those are disturbing statistics, Bloomer says.
“It’s definitely an issue, not only in Montana but across the country. Kids are leaving the game because they are not having fun. Parents are pulling them out because of exorbitant time commitment and cost,” he explains.
“Some programs are focusing on developing only high-end players and not on the majority of kids who might never play college hockey but who, with a good experience, would play the game for life and teach it to their kids. That’s how you build the base of hockey in America.”
USA Hockey is the umbrella for 3,400 local associations, but 1,000 of those have fewer than 200 kids in their programs.
“That’s pretty much the case for every town in Montana, and unfortunately numbers are in decline,” Bloomer says.
“Where only a few years ago there were 400 kids in youth hockey in Billings, the largest city, the number has fallen in half.”
In Red Lodge, Bloomer is working with local parents to develop a youth program that offers a more casual atmosphere for initiating tots to the game, emphasizes skill development through cross-ice and small-space games, and makes the game more convenient and less costly for parents.
Bloomer is also part of a growing discussion in Montana aimed at lessening road miles for families by strategically organizing tournament-like jamborees in central locations. It will result in shorter trips, more games in a weekend, and enhancing the bonds of camaraderie between players in different towns.
“I believe this is the solution in geographically challenged states like Montana,” Bloomer says. “To keep kids playing for life, we have to begin by taking baby steps.”