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Aspen Junior Hockey carries on Western Slope tradition

 

2016 AJH Group Photo

Back some 40 years ago, all it seemed anyone needed to play for the Aspen Junior Hockey (AJH) youth program was a stick, skates and a copy of Time magazine.

Yes, times have changed.

The AJH organization started in 1972 with John McBride at the helm. A Princeton University graduate and former member of the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 1960s, McBride also played for the Aspen Leafs semi-pro team that attracted fans on weekend nights at the Ice Garden.

“When John had kids old enough to play, the senior team basically turned into a group of coaches and they started getting kids playing the game,” said AJH executive director Shaun Hathaway. “Then in 1972, they hopped on a plane and went to their first tournament in Denver. It’s been going ever since. John remains a huge supporter of the program – he’s got grandkids in the program now – and so it’s pretty special for him to see how it was when it started, when they were basically using magazines for shin pads, to where it is today.

“It’s such a big difference.”

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Fast-forward to 2013 when Hathaway assumed his current role and AJH continues to be a valuable asset to the Aspen community.

“I came in three summers ago and had a very supportive board that is pro-growth and pro-improvement, a perfect fit for me,” said Hathaway. “They asked me to submit a 100-day plan and within those 100 days, we achieved our plan, and have grown tremendously since then – there’s a laundry list of things we’ve been able to achieve in my three years, now going on four.”

Three years ago, AJH had no Midget team, two Bantam teams, two Pee Wee teams, two Squirt teams, a Mite program, and girls 12U, 14U and 19U teams. For the 2016-17 year, 19 teams are part of AJH, including a Tier II 14U girls team and a 20U entry (and defending champions) in the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League (RMJHL).

“When you look at our numbers and what we have to draw from – our population up here is under 7,000 and when you count the whole valley, we’re less than 15,000 – it’s phenomenal,” Hathaway said. “We’ve created some excitement in this town and we’ve also been able to partner with other organizations. I think one of our best achievements this season is the start of a joint program with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC). Athletes registering for this program get two nights a week on the ice and two days a week of instruction on the hill. We’re trying to get this sort of cross-training going where the skiers become better skiers by being on the ice and vice versa.”

This season, Hathaway was also able to secure the coaching services of Blake Hull (Bantam A) and Dayn Belfour (Pee Wee A), both individuals with solid backgrounds and both sons of Hockey Hall of Famers (Bobby Hull and Ed Belfour).

“Retaining coaches can become a challenge, but we’ve been fortunate to have a core group of coaches that remain excited to be giving back to the kids,” said Hathaway. “It’s certainly tough when you’re not a parent and you’re young trying to make it a go up here. Aspen is an expensive place to live and many young, would-be coaches have to work three jobs to survive instead. Having Blake and Dayn here, I feel like sometimes I should just go buy a lottery ticket.”

Another aspect of AJH that appeals to families is the cost to play for the organization.

“We subsidize 60-70 percent of our program through donations and sponsorships,” explained Hathaway. “We try to keep our fees feasible. On average, we’re about $1000 less than the Front Range teams and we feel that we provide a superior product than what some of those other programs are providing. Part of setting the right fees and not relying so much on donations becomes a balancing act where if fees get too high, parents look for alternatives, other sports or activities to go spend their money. And there’s such a small pool of athletes up here that you can’t afford to lose very many.”

One family that Hathaway said is the model for what AJH is about is the Doremus family – Andrew and Jeanne and their five sons, Ryan, Tyler, Daniel and twins Jack and Willy.

“Andrew started playing here in the 1970s when the program started and when he was raising his family, he had five boys that came through the program,” Hathaway said. “Now, they’re all great athletes, great skiers and being here in Aspen paid their way. Their hard work – they used what they were learning and put it to use. They are all a shining example of what our program here is all about.

“With a couple local players on our junior team, we’re starting to see that right now. Charlie Van Allen was a kid that scored the winner in our championship game last season and is now a leader on this team. He’ll be a kid playing college hockey some day. It’s just another example of keeping that torch moving.”

As for the Leafs junior team, Hathaway said that came about in a roundabout way to solve a nagging problem within the organization.

“We lose a lot of kids to Denver and kids are convinced at a young age that if they don’t leave Aspen that their career is over – there is no way they can develop up here.” Hathaway said. “They think you have to be on the ice seven days a week, 365 days a year if they want to make it to the NHL – kids are sold that. It’s simply wrong and it doesn’t follow the USA Hockey American Development Model (ADM) at all. The junior team is to keep kids here in the program through their senior year of high school and then get a year or two of post-graduate hockey and get exposed to colleges. It’s also for the 17-year-old kid that doesn’t want to go pay the AAA bucks and stay here and play 20U hockey and still get that same level of exposure. The RMJHL certainly provides more opportunities for kids in the mountain towns and strengthens the Midget programs on the Front Range. It keeps the Aspen kids local and opens doors for other kids as well.”

It also never hurts when to win a championship in the inaugural year.

“Always makes things much easier for Year 2,” quipped Hathaway.

With all the growth and success AJH has endured, how much higher can Hathaway raise the bar in Aspen?

“Bringing in the head of Finnish youth hockey (Finnish Ice Hockey Association manager of youth hockey operations Kalle Valiaho) this season to exclusively work with our program for six months – not sure how much higher I can raise the bar,” admitted Hathaway. “The key will be to follow through on what we’ve built to ensure we continue to execute at a world-class level and take advantage of the things that are in front of us.

“That way, we can have a 10-year plan and not a 100-day plan. I think it starts with the Mites, the eight-year-olds. Look at them in 10 years and tell me how much they’ve achieved. That will be the proof of our success.”

PHOTO: Members of Aspen Junior Hockey bask in the amazing fall colors that the town of Aspen has to offer near Lewis Arena. Back row, pictured left to right, are Charlie Van Allen (20U), Garrett McNichol (20U), Shaun Hathaway (executive director), Keaton Miller (14U), Dara Schenck (19U girls) and Gage Redman (16U). Front row, pictured left to right, are Martin Scanlan (12U), Lilian Cassidy (14U girls), Ingrid Cassidy (10U girls), Jack Freitas (10U), Max Schlumberger (12U), Stella Scanlan (10U girls) and Tim Schlumberger (14U). Photo/Cathy Miller Images

— Matt Mackinder