It’s 5:15 a.m. Do you know where your hockey player is? |

It’s 5:15 a.m. Do you know where your hockey player is?

NWS Hockey Tournament 1 DT 11-4-11

VAIL, Colorado – For the past two weekends, as well as next weekend, dozens of youth hockey teams are being reminded how lucky they are to be doing what they’re doing.

Some are reminded at 5:15 a.m., as they hit the ice for the 32nd annual Vail Sportsmanship Tournament.

You read that right. Children will be skating well before dawn, and parents will be right there with them, watching and wondering how much coffee they can drink at that hour and still get a nap later.

It’s not what you might think. Lots of Front Range teams practice before school, so they’re used to getting up that time of day, said Alan McLean, president of the Vail Eagle Hockey Association and tournament director.

Kids do this because it builds character and because they love it. Parents do it because they love their kids. And the world turns as it has for generations.

Teams have been waging combat since 8:30 a.m. Nov. 4, when the Vail Bantam A’s squared off against the Silver Knights from Phoenix. Apparently, a desert climate is not enough to keep adults from becoming hockey parents or their beloved offspring from becoming hockey players.

“In Phoenix, it was something about a guy named Wayne Gretzky making it popular,” McLean said.

Teams come from Colorado and much of the Rocky Mountain West.

Friday’s games ran until 11 p.m.

Saturday’s hockey parents’ vigil stretched from 5:15 a.m. until 1 a.m. Sunday.

The Vail Eagle Hockey Association is run completely by volunteers.

McLean is in his sixth year as tournament director, so when something blows up, it lands on him. Feel free to add another zero to his salary package. It won’t change his tax bracket much.

He has no kids, but he’s out there. McLean gets to go to hockey heaven.

McLean played when he was a kid and became the rogue uncle every family needs, influencing his nieces and nephews to play hockey. They ended up on two and three teams at once. More than once, his sister, who had to drive them around, took McLean’s name in vain.

But it’s a happy-ending story. His niece plays for Princeton. His nephew is an exceptional player with lifetime friends.

Speaking of lifetimes and legends, Vail hockey legend Merv Lapin started the tournament 32 years ago and the Vail Hockey Association. As Vail grew, so did hockey.

Lapin’s vision extended well beyond the valley, so he started the Vail International Hockey program. It gives teenagers a chance to travel the world, experience cultures and play a little hockey along the way.

“We appreciate everything he has done for hockey,” McLean said.

The Vail Eagle Hockey Association’s fundraising campaign raised $60,000 in cash and around $30,000 in in-kind donations, and it can always use more.

“We do that to keep the cost of hockey low and keep kids in the game,” Rob Trotter said. Trotter has three kids in the program and works on the board. He does not sit on the board. No one sits on this board.

The association’s ice time this year cost $65,000, he said.

The kids give back much more than sweat. Several players rounded up pledges for St. Baldrick’s and then had their heads shaved to raise money for the fight against pediatric cancer. They’re collecting coats for the Roundup River Ranch coat drive.

Scott Ruff, with the Western Eagle County Metropolitan Recreation District, has been running youth tournaments for years.

Ruff figures it this way:

Each weekend will feature 25 teams for the three weekends.

Each team has about 20 kids.

They all have parents and siblings.

And coaches. They have coaches, too.

They’ll need somewhere to stay, preferably indoors. That means hotel nights.

And they’ll need to eat. So that’s three meals per day for that many people.

They’ll buy the occasional T-shirt and other souvenirs.

They’ll buy a bunch of gas because you cannot stuff hockey gear into a Prius.

Add it all up and multiply it by three because economists figure tourist dollars change hands three times before they cycle out of the area, and the economic benefit tops $600,000, maybe more, during a slow time of year.

Teams are guaranteed at least four games, more if they make the finals.

If they’re really lucky and enjoy character building, or even if they don’t, some of those games will face off at 5:15 a.m. Their parents and coaches who love them watch and wonder where they would rather be – and can’t come up with anywhere on God’s green Earth.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or

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