Eagle County Dreamworks Foundation hopes to launch new semi-pro hockey team in Vail
But new nonprofit will need Vail Recreation District to grant ice user agreement to do so
A Minnesota-based semi-pro hockey player — in Vail after a weekend playing Breckenridge — had his eyes glued to the TV at Garfinkel’s sports bar last winter in Lionshead. As a commercial interrupted his hometown Minnesota Wild battling the Pittsburgh Penguins, he turned to Mike Dunlap, the sports bar’s operations officer, and declared:
“You know, the next Sidney Crosby is sitting on the couch somewhere and we’ll never know who he is because his parents can’t afford to get him into hockey.”
In lieu of the words becoming prophetic, Dunlap was moved to take action.
“That just clicked for me as to why this is so important,” he recently told the Vail Daily.
The vision of the Eagle County Dreamworks Foundation, launched in May by the leadership of Garfinkel’s restaurant to reimagine the relationship between the local semi-pro hockey team housed at Dobson Arena and the Vail Valley’s youth hockey community, will be discussed at Thursday’s Vail Recreation District meeting. The agenda item will look at whether or not the Vail Recreation District awards a year-long ice user agreement to the foundation or to the Vail Yeti, who have held the contract for each of the last nine years.
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Mitch Garfinkel stated the nonprofit plans to “look out for all the players’ needs” and “every penny of profit will stay in Eagle County, subsidizing kids to play hockey and ski/snowboard.”
The Garfinkels believe they’re well-positioned to run the operations behind a foundation and hockey team, given their seasoned business experience. In addition to the sports bar in Vail, the family also operates a hockey camp in Pennsylvania which provides opportunities for 425 kids to receive guidance from 200 counselors every year.
“The foundation’s board members are all hockey players, businessmen — or both,” Kyle Garfinkel stated.
Joining forces with the ownership of Garfinkels to spearhead the foundation was former Colorado Avalanche defenseman Kyle Quincey.
“Hockey has given me everything that I have and I’ve dedicated myself to giving back to that game, growing it the right way and giving it to as many people as possible,” Quincey said.
The foundation claims to have received signed commitments from athletes formerly with the Vail Yeti to play for a new semi-pro team, the Vail Snowcats. The foundation plans on pouring 100% of the team’s revenue back into the hockey community — something foundation officials claim has not been happening from the current Yeti organization — via scholarships and financial support for families and youth players in need.
“There are a lot of youth in the community who don’t have the same financial means as others; they have to make a lot of tough decisions when it comes to sports,” Dunlap said. “We want to make this local players playing for the local community giving back to a local cause. That’s the end game of what we’re trying to do here.”
Dunlap himself was unable to afford the sport and only started playing in his 30s, once he found a stable job.
“I understand the mental torment that kids feel watching their friends go off and do something — they want to play so bad and they can’t,” he said.
Quincey said the foundation plans to work alongside the Vail Mountaineers, the valley’s youth hockey program, to direct funds.
“The Vail Mountaineers will have a good finger on the pulse of who needs it and where they need it,” Quincey said.
Rudi Baldwin, 29, who was born and raised in Vail and grew up playing for the Mountaineers and Battle Mountain High School, said the struggle for ice, coaching and financial support has been a constant in the valley for athletes of all ages.
“It gets to be an expensive sport. This foundation makes the sport of hockey more available to anyone,” Baldwin said. “We have world-class athletes in all the other sports around here — why wouldn’t we do it in hockey as well.”
Baldwin, who started playing for the Yeti in 2016-2017, said the Eagle County Dreamworks Foundation is “a good opportunity to change the course of what has been going on.”
Vail Yeti owner Chris Huntington called the proposed vision of Eagle County Dreamworks a “non-story.”
“What needs to be in place for the upcoming Vail Yeti season is in place just as it has been for the previous eight seasons,” he stated.
“If there are any new ideas about ways to support hockey in the valley, then we’re open to how the Yeti team can participate and continue to give back to the community like we have for the past nine years.”
Avalanche alumni weekend got the ball rolling
Quincey, who is vice president of the Colorado Avalanche alumni team and lives in Vail, was prepared to play with the alumni team against the Yeti last year for a Vail Mountaineers fundraising game. According to Quincey, Huntington asked for compensation in return for playing against his team.
“We all agreed that would be absolutely ludicrous,” Quincey said.
“That’s when this whole thing came on our radars that some things weren’t right.”
Huntington, who lives in Connecticut, said he asked for complimentary tickets for Yeti players as well as “the potential of a small revenue share to cover expenses.”
“When I was told that wasn’t possible, I said we’d be happy and glad to play anyway and would absolutely like to be a part of it because it’s good for both the community and the youth hockey,” Huntington added. “And they told me at that point that they had moved on to a different team.”
“Saying that I asked for compensation for the Yeti to play in the Avalanche Alumni game is misleading at best,” Huntington further stated in an email.
“We always played for free, but coming off the COVID year we discussed the possibility of a small revenue share to defray some expenses and comp tickets for Yeti players which I considered to be a fair ask.”
“Once he said he wanted compensation, we switched paths and we played against the Vail Mountaineer alumni, said Quincey, who estimates the weekend raised $60,000-$80,000 for Mountaineers youth hockey.
“Then we started digging a little more and found none of the money raised was going back to the community,” Quincey added in regards to the Yeti’s revenues.
“Giving back to the community and youth hockey has always been an important part of the Vail Yeti,” Huntington stated in an email. “Each year we have conducted events that have been for the benefit of such organizations as the Eagle County First Responders, the Humane Society, the Salvation Army, individual youth hockey players and events that support care for cancer patients.”
Quincey later joined the Yeti roster for a game, stating he learned “players weren’t getting taken care of.”
Keith Denton, a lifelong valley resident who ended up playing on Battle Mountain’s first hockey team, graduating from the school in 2004, fractured his face while playing for the Yeti in 2018. He claimed Huntington came into the locker room “once or twice a year at the most” during his stint with the team.
“He would stay at his home and have his deals and make money through the team. He doesn’t care about the community or anything. He just cares about making money,” Denton said.
“I don’t see why that’s even relevant to operating and running the team — I’m not the coach of the team,” Huntington answered when asked about the lack of presence in the locker room. “My job as the founder, owner and business manager of the Yeti is to put everything in place, working behind the scenes so that these players can continue to play competitively in front of our great fan base. That I’m not always there nor in the locker room is an unfortunate reality.”
As a former hockey player, Huntington said he would enjoy spending more time in the locker room.
“But I leave the coaching and locker room chemistry to the coach and players and have to be mindful whether my presence could be seen as stepping on anyone’s toes,” he stated.
Denton added that Huntington was “oblivious” to his recovery.
“Chris Huntington didn’t give me one dollar or ask me how my face was after he’d seen me,” said Denton, who went through USA Hockey insurance to help cover more than $100,000 worth of medical expenses. “Chris didn’t help at all. He did not help me one bit.”
Huntington said Denton’s claims are a “tragic misperception.”
“Of course I cared, as any compassionate human being would if someone in their organization were to be injured.”
He said Denton had subsidized insurance through both USA Hockey and Beacon Sports, “as all players are required to have for just such an eventuality.”
“It was appropriate that USA Hockey cover his medical costs,” Huntington stated.
According to Denton, Huntington would occasionally help out with travel expenses but didn’t provide players with basic provisions. “We couldn’t even get a free skate sharpening from Chris or a roll of tape,” he said. “Nothing.”
The player testimonies “empowered” Quincey to “step in.”
“It just didn’t sit right with me, and it triggered me to get involved with like-minded people in Vail to do right by Vail,” Quincey said.
Quincey connected with Mitch and Kyle Garfinkel and Dunlap, who “shared a passion” for supporting players and “funneling money back into the community to take care of the hockey youth and grow the game in Vail.”
After playing for the Yeti in a game last year, Quincey forged a relationship with the players. When a now former Yeti player explained the foundation’s vision to the rest of the team, Quincey said there was near unanimous buy-in.
“Every guy was so fired up and on board that we asked them to sign a letter of intent that they would be willing to play for us so we could go get jerseys and try to get ice time and talk to other teams,” Quincey said.
“They’d like to play in this organization because they believe in the foundation of what we’re doing, which is giving back to the hockey community,” added Dunlap.
“We put our bodies on the line and have to go to work the next day,” said Baldwin, who factored the new leadership’s business acumen and experience at the highest level of hockey into his decision to sign on.
“This new team is giving us something we didn’t have, and that’s why we’re all going to it.”
One reason for presenting at the Vail Recreation District meeting on Thursday will be for the foundation to simply inform the public.
“I have the assumption that a lot of the people in the town don’t know what’s going on currently,” Quincey said in regards to “where the money is currently not going” and where the foundation plans to send it.
“We want to take care of the players and we want to take care of the community.”
In order to do so, the foundation will need to secure an ice arena use agreement for access to Dobson Arena. Those agreements are one-year contracts. The last nine have been with the Yeti, with the most recent set to expire on Aug. 31.
“Come Aug. 31, we just want a fair shot at the ice, because there isn’t a signed lease for next year,” Quincey explained. “And we just want to have it known that we want the ice, we have the money to buy the ice, and we have a direct plan for the money raised, where it’s going, back into the community.”
Huntington did not comment on the ice contract situation directly.
Vail Recreation District General Counsel Allison Ulmer said the VRD Board is “struggling with how to balance the long-term relationship with an existing user and their plans and expectations to renew their ice rental, execution of which should occur any day, and the proposal submitted by a potential new user.”
She added that ice arena use agreements are typically developed over long discussions, based on historical commitments, and handled at the staff level, with Jared Biniecki, the director of Dobson Ice Arena.
“The board typically doesn’t get involved with this type of operation,” she said.
Now, however, there are two entities vying for one space.
“The board is meeting on Thursday to talk about that issue in executive session,” Ulmer explained. “I think that there’s a lot of interest and willingness to work with everyone.”
According to Ulmer, Eagle County Dreamwork’s vision is “compelling,” but the situation presents a “timing issue.”
“It just takes time to put all these schedules together and figure out all the programming. The ice time scheduling is so complex,” she said of the multiple-month process for recurring users.
“So, putting that puzzle together with this expectation of renewing these ice time agreements on this annual cycle — there’s a lot more complexity than you might think. The District needs more time to facilitate a transition from one significant program to another one.”
Ulmer said discussions about next year’s programming are already underway, with everyone’s expectation that the current contract was to be renewed in August.
“The board and the staff are trying to do the best they can for the entire community and the VRD with all these different interests people have,” she said.
“They want to work this out, but they are concerned with violating any contract expectations and they don’t want to toss out any longstanding, successful programming arrangements without reasonable notice and discussion.”
The new foundation believes it has a good argument for why it should be considered for the future winter weekend slots.
“We have no idea why VRD wouldn’t want to support our own community and our local players,” stated Mitch Garfinkel.
“The Vail Recreation District’s mission statement says ‘for the mental, physical, well-being of members in the community’ … Wouldn’t you want to give some of that ice time to a program that gives back to the local hockey community or kids who can’t play in the local community?” Dunlap rhetorically asked.
Ulmer said that while no final decisions have been made, “everyone needs to understand how difficult it is to implement a major change request like the Foundation’s.”
Everything is going to get better
While the ice-time dilemma has put the foundation “in a holding pattern,” according to Quincey, he is confident that once the green light is given, the valley will be rewarded.
“If you take care of the players, the product is going to get better,” argued the former NHL player, who says his networking capacity with former pros is an additional bonus.
“I have no doubt the product is going to get a lot better just purely because there’s going to be some ex-pros that come up and play, just because of my involvement,” he said.
“Having the relationship with Quincey gives us some more access to more retired NHL players and higher-end coaching,” said Dunlap who added that the foundation is planning tournaments for youth and adults, particularly women.
“We don’t think there’s enough women’s tournaments in the valley,” he added.
On Sept. 9-11, the Vail Snowcats are scheduled to play the Colorado Avalanche alumni squad at Dobson Arena for the already established Mountaineers fundraiser. Quincey said it will be a “big unveiling” for the new team.
“And all the money is going to the right place,” he added.
“We’ll see how the boys do against Pierre Turgeon and — I don’t know if Sakic’s playing again but he played last time. It’s a cool event.”
Quincey couldn’t guarantee the presence of other players, but said that Scott Parker, John Michael-Liles, John Mitchell, Rick Barry, David Clarkson, Darwin McCutcheon. Pierre Turgeon, Adam Foote, Joe Sakic and Peter Budaj comprise a “core group of regulars” for the organization’s alumni team.
Former Yeti players expressed excitement for the possibility of heading in a new direction and receiving the care and compensation they feel has been lacking. The most important motivation, however, is the knowledge that when they do lay themselves on the line, they’re playing for a cause.
“It gives the players a chance to give back to the community. I think that’s the best thing about all this — giving back to the community and making us a community again,” said Baldwin, who remembers getting into the locker room after the Red Wings Alumni visited the area when he was a boy. He recently stumbled upon his kid-size Sergei Fedorov jersey, full of autographs, while spring cleaning — a reminder of the importance and influence of local role models.
“I remember being the kid asking for the autograph,” he reminisced. “It’s really cool that we get to play and continue to play the game that we love. It’s all about the next generation. Without them, the game stops.”
Quincey remembers putting local players on a pedestal growing up, too.
“I grew up in a small town where our big celebrity guys were junior-C hockey players,” he recalled.
“Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t the greatest hockey, but at the time, that’s why I loved the game so much. I idolized these guys. They were 19-20 years old, at the oldest.”
He sees the local players holding a similar position, with local youth aspiring to perhaps even play for the team one day.
“The Vail Snowcats — they’ll be idols for kids growing up. It will be very important to make sure they’re taken care of in a way that they’ll be good role models in the community.”
As a former Vail Mountaineer, Baldwin was fortunate to lace up his skates against the Avs alumni team last year even though his Yeti teammates didn’t get to. While young fans delight in seeing their local and pro heroes, for players, there is a bit of idolization going on as well.
“These are the guys I grew up watching win the Stanley Cup,” Baldwin stated.
“That game is a big deal for our players,” Dunlap added.
Looking ahead to next year
In regard to next season, Huntington said, “The Yeti is looking forward to the 2022-2023 season. We have an exciting 22-game home season and we’re looking forward to announcing signings of new and returning players.”
Simultaneously, at least a few of his former players seem to see greener pastures in a different field.
“I think this is a really good thing for the community, it’s a really good thing for us as a team; there’s nothing but positive outcomes from this,” Baldwin stated of the Eagle County Dreamworks Foundation and playing for the Snowcats
“It’s all about giving back and playing for a team and that’s all we want to do.”
Though he hasn’t played since his accident, Denton is happy about the possibility of a new route for semi-pro players.
“I think the right people need to be in charge and just give back to the community and grow hockey again because it was big for me growing up,” he said.
For Quincey, hockey has provided more than simply a successful NHL career.
“I’m a big believer in youth hockey in being essential to teaching kids to be on time, to be good people and they depend on teammates — and that creates good people in general,” he said.
“I’d like to see as many kids as possible have the opportunity to play the great game of hockey. That’s a big mission statement for us. To be able to take funds from a hockey team and then put it back into the community where it’s needed most.”