This past week marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Olympic Men's Hockey gold medal in Lake Placid, New York. Most remember Al Michaels' iconic "Do you believe in miracles?" call in the waning seconds as the Americans defeated the Soviets 4-3, but Michaels bookends one of the greatest upsets in the history of sport with a perfect intro at the beginning of the game.
Michaels, referring to the significance of two countries frozen solid in a Cold War, was setting the Olympic stage for two teams about to do battle on a sheet of ice with pucks and sticks as opposed to bullets and guns.
"People don't know the difference between a blue line and a clothes line; it's irrelevant," Michaels said.
As a 7-year-old growing up in Florida, I was like millions of other Americans; it was the first hockey game I had ever watched.
For the rest of this story, whether you've played hockey or not, it's irrelevant. This is a story about teamwork and community and even if you don't know the difference between a blue line and a clothes line, you can still lend a hand with a few clicks on your computer.
Comparing volunteer efforts between other River Falls youth sports and River Falls youth hockey is like comparing a teddy bear to a grizzly bear. River Falls youth girls' basketball, for example, has annual expenses in the range of $20,000 with the school district graciously providing free gym time for practice based on availability. Hudson, as another example, charges their youth girls’ basketball teams for gym time, an additional $18,000 annual bill.
Most city municipalities in the Twin Cities area with hockey cover the cost of the facility. In River Falls, it is 100% volunteer funded and organized.
"It's about $250,000 per year just to break even," River Falls Youth Hockey Association Treasurer Neil Accola said. "The mortgage on the building is $100,000 per year alone."
RFYHA built the Wildcat Centre in 2002 with a 25-year, $1.3 million loan. 2027 can't come soon enough for the volunteer bean counters.
"We've been scraping by," volunteer Stephanie Linehan said, "but our kids always have ice to skate on, always."
Christensen is there
Most youth athletic programs in the Upper Midwest have volunteer boards and even the longest-tenured board members will rarely see double digits. The Mother Teresa of youth hockey volunteers is Jody Christensen. One could say Christensen has hockey in her blood. She's been on the RFYHA board in different capacities for 22 years.
"It's like running your household," said Christensen. "If you're good with a hammer, we have a place for you. If you can mow grass, we have a place for you."
The Wildcat Centre is almost like Jody's home for six months out of the year. She estimates she spends 800 hours per season at the rink.
"The ice maintenance guys like Paul Wilson and those guys spend like 1,000 hours at the rink per season," Christensen said. "There's always some turmoil but when you look at the kids, there's way more happy smiles than conflicts. That’s why we do it."
Two pieces of advice from the 22-year veteran youth sports organizer: "Misinformation with parents is usually the problem and keeping people informed is the number one thing that has changed for the better; have good people in place and let them do their job."
In 2009, about the same time the RFYHA was past due on accounts, they had 97 skaters in the program. They started a free "learn to skate" program for 4-to-7-year-olds six years ago and now they're one of the fastest growing youth hockey programs in Wisconsin with more than 225 skaters. A big reason for the increase was partially due to the influx of girls. More teams equals more hosted weekend tournaments which, in turn, brings more people to our hotels and restaurants. A thriving Wildcat Centre is advantageous for our local economy during the long winter months.
So here's the point in the story where you can lend a hand or a finger. The youth hockey folks need our help. Stephanie Linehan has entered the Wildcat Centre in the NHL's Kraft Hockeyville USA competition. The winning program will receive $150,000 and host a pre-season NHL game next year.
To date, River Falls looks to be right near the top in the "online point totals." All you have to do is go to www.krafthockeyville.com and register with an email and your age. It takes 30 seconds. Then, "like" as many River Falls Wildcat Centre pictures until your volunteer heart’s content. It's that easy.
The more likes the Wildcat Centre pictures receive, the higher their "point total." The “nominate and rally” stage runs until February 29.
It's no doubt a marketing avenue for the NHL but we can play the game whether we know the difference between a blue line and a clothes line. This can be a huge deal for our community and it just takes a little teamwork. Do you believe in miracles?