Diehards enjoy outdoor hockey in Eagle | VailDaily.com

Diehards enjoy outdoor hockey in Eagle

Brett Heicher
Eagle Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Theo Stroomer/Vail DailyJake Cossette, foreground, and his brother Zack play at the ice rink in Eagle. The outdoor rink is a popular location for pickup hockey games and skating.

EAGLE ” Ten years ago, times were hard for hockey downvalley.

Hockey season was shorter back then ” it began the day the temperature dropped so low people swore the moment they stepped outside. The season ended the first warm winter day when some punk kid would turn the park skating rink into his personal BMX bike racing track.

These days, the kids and adults in the lower Eagle Valley have an indoor rink that prior generations only dreamed about. The rink’s ice is completely surrounded by boards, and it has heated locker rooms. Hockey season there lasts more than seven months. The old outdoor rink was lucky to get in six weeks of use.

So, how often would downvalley residents get to play indoors before a rink was built in Eagle?

“Never,” remembers Gypsum resident Lynne Krnacik.

Ten years ago, all hockey west of Nottingham Lake in Avon came courtesy of a flooded Eagle Town Park and an unofficial rink-tending group known as the “Zamboni Brothers.” Bill Johnson, together with his brother-in-law Mike Metcalf, joined up every winter with county employees Paul Gregg and Tom Ehrenberg to make ice.

The feat, as most long time locals will tell you, was due in large part to a piece of local engineering known as the “Downvalley Zamboni.” Every night, from Christmas to Groundhog’s Day, an old beat-up pick-up truck with a 55-gallon drum and mysterious hot water source could be seen traversing every inch of the ice rink in the Eagle Town Park.

It was a time when outdoor hockey in the Eagle Valley hit its peak.

“It was best a couple years before the indoor rink,” remembers former Eagle resident Tommy Coppens, “back when it was a priority.”

For a number of years, the ice quality was good enough to host organized outdoor games on a weekly basis. Some say the great ice came from necessity.

“They had to have (outdoor ice) good enough for the rec league,” says local veterinarian and hockey enthusiast Julie Hunter Alt, recalling the days of parents rushing onto the ice with shovels to clear snow between whistles. She sometimes refereed kids’ games with her oldest son in a baby backpack.

When the ice was at its prime condition it was not uncommon to see the town park filled with some of the best hockey players ever to come out of Eagle including Tony Powell, Kyle and Alex Woods, Jake Brock, the entire Fawcett family, Brett Klahr, and most infamous of all … the Warren brothers (Chance, Chad, and Chess).

So much for when outdoor ice was at its best. What about when the ice was at its worst?

The answer to that question varies from the days when there was so much snow on the ice players couldn’t keep track of the puck; to warm February days when it was tough to tell the difference between the ice rink and the public pool. Others say the worst conditions were when figure skaters demanded their own ice time.

Although the rink at the park survives today without a Zamboni, mostly due to the tireless efforts of new ice guru Harry Sandell, it would be hard to argue that the indoor skating at the Eagle Pool and Ice Rink is not the most popular hockey playing surface in town.

Nonetheless, with two very different rinks in one small town and a recent nationally televised NHL game played in an outdoor football stadium, a great debate persists: indoor hockey vs. outdoor hockey.

“I always kind of liked outdoors,” says Coppens. “Skating at night gives you that camping feel. You’re under the open sky, the stars are out, and you can feel the breeze in your face.”

Eagle resident Tommy Hymes, a self-described “sandlot hockey player” who claims to have lost “hundreds” of pucks over the years to surrounding snow banks, also cites “the feel of wind in your face” as a major factor that keeps him coming back to outdoor hockey.

However, the indoor rinks have their supporters as well.

“I know I’m safe indoors, I don’t wanna fall through the ice and drown,” says Krnacik, referring to the ponds and creeks she grew up skating on in western Pennsylvania. “The conditions outside are much more difficult.”

These days most players around the valley, even the loyal outdoor enthusiasts, brave the rink fees and scheduling conflicts of the indoor rinks. It’s all in the name of more competition, referees, glass, and goalies.

Still, it is tough to separate a die-hards from the game they grew up playing.

“You can get that old time hockey feel more on an outdoor rink,” Metcalf says. “You end up designing your game around the imperfections on the ice.”

While the best quality for an indoor skater to have is definitely talent, an outside skater’s strength would probably be perseverance. Every dedicated outdoor skater has a tale of unbearable conditions they have endured in the name of hockey.

These stories are about blizzards, high winds and temperatures of 25 degrees below zero, and nights the town cops would lock the bathroom doors early then wait with tickets ready for the first person to yellow a snow bank.

So debate then turns to a final question: What environment produces the better skaters and who are the real hockey players?

Most people agreed that indoor ice probably creates better talent because of the longer season and the chance to get better coaching. But even indoor enthusiasts believe outdoor skaters tend to be more flexible, committed, and willing to stand up to more hardships just for a chance to play.

The consensus is it is an easier transition to go from “outside to in” than “inside to out.”

“It doesn’t matter. If you’re out there skating you’re a real player,” says Hunter. And a real player will play anywhere adds Metcalf.

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