By Eugene Buchanan – Special to USA HockeySteamboat Youth Hockey squirts C

While February’s NHL Stadium Series might be drawing hockey attention to Denver, Colorado, a smaller mountain town just three hours away is also doing so with the help of NHL alumni and applying USA Hockey’s instruction practices to its burgeoning youth hockey program.

“We’ve been adhering to the USA Hockey’s ADM for a few years, which has resulted in 1,000-percent growth in our introductory programs,” said Kerry Shea, high school assistant coach and Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association (SSYHA) 8U head coach.

Previously run by the city and now taken over by SSYHA, the town’s Introduction-to-Hockey program blossomed from just five kids in 2014 to 55 in 2015, with additional growth projected for 2016.

“In the past, we’ve been limited by the previous coaching platform and resources,” said Shea, who is also leading a campaign to get a second sheet of ice in town to supplement its Olympic-sized sheet at Howelsen Ice Arena. “But that’s the beauty of the ADM. Kids new to the sport can enter in a non-threatening, fun atmosphere that builds the foundational skills and enjoyment for years to come. The kids love it.”

All this, he adds, has led to unprecedented hockey growth in the small 15,000-person hamlet long known as Ski Town USA. Fueling the sport’s heritage and local momentum this year is the third annual Steamboat Hockey Classic, which is bringing 18 NHL alumni from the Original Six franchises and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team to town for a SSYHA benefit game. In its first year, the event raised $7,500 for local youth hockey programs, a number that grew to $30,000 last year.

This year, organizers are aiming to exceed those numbers with a fun-filled weekend of events including a skills competition/player meet-and-greet, HockeyPalooza Auction Party featuring one-of-a-kind sports memorabilia and travel packages, an NHL alumni charity hockey game and a benefit concert by hockey aficionado Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

The numbers tell the story of hockey’s growth in Steamboat. In addition to the kids in its introductory program, more than 300 kids play in its youth hockey programs, 320 locals play in its multi-division adult hockey leagues, and it has a top 10-ranked high school team as well as competitive men’s and three women’s traveling teams. Local hockey heroes include Andrew Farny, currently playing for Colorado College, and Ryan Dingle, a former standout for the University of Denver who played in the American Hockey League before moving to Italy’s professional league and now Scotland, where he plays the Fife Flyers.

“The hockey momentum here for such a small town is huge,” said rink manager Mike Cochran. “It’s really hard to find a town this size with such a great hockey community (in Colorado).”

As for the NHL greats coming to town in March, organizers are expecting a big turn out, among both players and fans.

“We try to roll out the red carpet for these guys whenever they come here, but it’s the friendliness of the community that brings them back,” said Chris Campanelli, event co-organizer and high school hockey coach. “We’re excited to continue the event for years to come.”

Among the NHL notables to skate in Steamboat are Jon Finstrom, Dennis Hextall, Jiri Fischer, Petr Klima, Lorne Knauft, Joe Kocur, Kevin Miller, Craig Valassis and Eddie Mio, as well as U.S. Olympian and former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Jack O’Callahan, Reid Simpson, Peter Marsh, Phil Russell, Brian Noonan, Keith Carney, José Charbonneau, Sergei Krivokrasov, Bill Mullins and Wayne Presley. This year’s event will adds four more Team USA alumni to the Steamboat roster: Dave Christian, Al Lafrate, Reed Larson and Rob McClanahan, along with former fellow NHL alumni Stephane Matteau, Rob McClanahan, Ric Nattress and Bernie Nichols.

There’s good reason for the attendance beyond supporting local youth hockey efforts — it’s also a darn good time. Organizers take the NHL greats fly fishing, skiing, snowmobiling and more during their visit, with hockey, dining, concerts and parties in between.

“It’s truly an amazing event with super hospitality that Steamboat puts on,” said Presley, whose 14-year NHL career included stints with the Blackhawks, Sabres, Rangers and Maple Leafs. “It’s one of the best events we attend all year.”

Organizers anticipate this year’s event, March 18-19, to be the best yet.

“Visitors and locals alike will have a great chance to watch and interact with players throughout the weekend, expanding the sport locally and abroad as we celebrate all that is hockey,” said Shea.

From attending the auction party and skills contest to bidding on the chance to skate with NHL’s best in the charity exhibition game, it should be a fun-filled hockey weekend for all, and a boon to the local youth hockey ranks.

“The growth and momentum we have going here is pretty amazing,” said Shea. “We have the full spectrum, from our growing intro programs to NHL alumni coming to town every year to help grow the sport. And a lot of it owes itself to USA Hockey.”

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