Anxious parents jockey for position on one side of the glass. Their children struggle to stay upright on the other side of the glass. It’s the chaotic beginning to a new hockey season in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
“It’s so easy to take a spill with those little guys out there,” says Bill Harrie, Idaho Falls Youth Hockey Association coach. “You have to watch your backside all the time.”
Harrie works one corner of the rink where the newest and youngest skaters are struggling to stay vertical. The 80-year-old is helping 4-year-old Waylon Muirbrook stand. Harrie is pushing a plastic walker across the ice. The walker isn’t for Harrie. It’s for the crying 4-year-old.
“As the oldest coach out there, you’ll see me stick around the gate and try to work with those half dozen kids that are having real problems and are very timid. I don’t want to lose them,” Harrie says. “If you give up on them and let them get off the ice, you won’t see them again.”
Tears stream down Waylon’s face. Harrie skates behind him and shows him how to push the plastic stand. Fifteen minutes into practice and Waylon is still crying. Harrie has a talk with the boy’s dad who is reaching around the rink wall to offer reassurance.
“I asked the father to go to the bleachers to where he was out of sight,” Harrie says. “So many parents stay right there by the boards figuring it’s helpful, and it’s really a distraction.”
Harrie’s hockey patience dates back to the program’s beginning in Idaho Falls in 1964. He’s taught for so many years, he now has great-grandkids on the ice, and the current coaches credit him for their skills.
“Bill Harrie’s been here my whole hockey career,” says Brandon Horkley, head coach of the Mite division. “He’s good with kids. And he knows hockey.”
Halfway through practice, Waylon stops crying and starts moving. As Harrie whispers in his ear the boy nods his head and together they start gliding across the ice.
“Hockey is a lifetime sport, and I think Bill embodies that statement,” says Bill Combo, the director of the Mite program. “There isn’t a nose he hasn’t wiped. There isn’t a skate he hasn’t tied. He’s done it all.”
And he’s done it all in the same pair of skates. His black Lange skates are the first insulated boot insert skate from the 1970s. His skates are older than most of the coaches and they’re worn by the oldest skater on the ice who is happy to be working with the newest to the sport.
“It’s always good to see him come back out,” Horkley says. “Every year I wonder if he’s coming back for another round, and he’s always here.”
Ten minutes until practice is over and the number of walkers on the ice have been dramatically reduced. More skaters are standing. The tears are gone, replaced by plenty of smiles. Harrie has three little guys following him up and down the ice, including Waylon. The hockey fix is taking root.
“I can teach them enough to peak their interest and they want to stay with it,” Harrie says. “I know how much it will mean to them in the years ahead. I’m probably a good example of how much I enjoy skating even at 80.”
After practice, hockey players with cherry-colored cheeks stuffed in sweaty helmets wobble into the locker room. Harrie is right behind them. Parents go from anxious at the glass to taskmasters on the bench. The youngest players need help peeling the hockey accessories from their little bodies. That’s what the parents tackle while Harrie makes his rounds. He has something to say to every player.
“They think it’s great when coaches come in and talk to them and make a big deal about how they skated,” Horkley says. “It makes a huge difference in their minds and keeps them coming back.”
Coming back. That’s what Harrie does. He comes back year after year for hockey and those who want
“If you give up on them and let them get off the ice, you won’t see them again”
to play it. He started skating 75 years ago on a pond in Wisconsin. He jumped on the Idaho Falls program four decades ago when he helped soak a frozen field with a fire hose. Through real ice to artificial ice. From smashed cans and tree limbs to pucks and composite sticks. From no pads to players covered in armor from head to toe.
Harrie is a hockey history book on skates, and the new kids coming into the sport know it just by how he sticks with them no matter what.
“I’ve learned to never give up on a kid,” Harrie says. “I also find that as I age, the body doesn’t do what it did 20 years ago, but I like skating so much, I don’t want to give it up. As long as the good Lord will allow me to do it, I’ll enjoy every minute of it.”
Kris Millgate is a writer and editor with Tight Line Media in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Photos By Kris Millgate/tightlinemedia.com