Sports

Hockeytown, Montana

Guided by a former NHL star and a growing number of devoted advocates, the Glacier Hockey Association is turning Whitefish into a hockey hotbed

The Flathead Valley has long been a popular vacation destination for Canadian tourists in search of a quick and easy getaway, and the appreciation our neighbors to the north have of this valley, particularly Whitefish, has done wonders for those who call Northwest Montana home.

Canadians boost the valley’s economy, inject foreign culture and customs into the mainstream, and strengthen the relationship between the two long-allied nations. And without giving too much credence to tired clichés, Canadians have brought their national sporting pastime with them, too.

It started for Murray Craven as an infant, when the Alberta native would regularly cross the border with his family for a Whitefish respite. The place made such an impression on Craven that when he was in the throes of a long NHL career he settled on Whitefish as his offseason home in the early 1990s, returning after each grueling hockey season to enjoy Northwest Montana’s splendorous summers. When his playing career ended in the early 2000s after 18 years and more than 1,000 games, he and his family made Whitefish their year-round home, and Craven looked for a way to stay involved in the sport he — and most every other Canadian — had been playing since he was old enough to walk.

“The game had given me so much in my life,” Craven said. “It was really payback for me to give something back to the game.”

To do that, Craven joined forces with the nascent Glacier Hockey Association, at the time a grassroots collection of hockey enthusiasts and their families who were occupying just a tiny sliver of the local sports consciousness. When they weren’t playing adult-league games on an outdoor Whitefish rink, dodging snowflakes and fighting frigid conditions, Whitefish’s hockey faithful had started the GHA, a youth program scratching by with just enough players (mostly the children of adult-league participants) to fill out rosters at its various age levels.

Craven would quickly become the president of the young program and for more than a decade he and his wife, Sheri, and a small group of other volunteers would take the GHA on a lengthy journey to what it has become today — one of the largest and most successful youth hockey programs in the state, with dozens of volunteers, hundreds of players, a year-round rink to play in and a growing number of championship banners lining the walls.

Glacier Hockey Association Executive Director Ryan Ulvin, right, coaches U-10 players at the Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish on Oct. 2, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Those who have followed Craven at the helm of the Glacier Hockey Association speak glowingly of the man they credit for much of the program’s current success. Craven, who today is the senior vice president of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, is less willing to take credit for hockey’s growth in Whitefish.

“It was really just to take what had already been established and continue to grow it,” Craven said. “Really it was just a progression; I don’t want to take credit for starting Glacier Hockey, if anything I helped continue the work others got started and helped build it to the point where it is now.”

Colby Shaw, who followed Craven as GHA president, and Clint Muhlfeld, who replaced Shaw earlier this year, are a bit more forthcoming with praise for the ex-NHL star.

“Nobody’s going to question somebody that had a (long) hockey career,” Shaw said. “So his reputation kind of precedes him; that this guy knows what he’s doing. He’s been involved in youth hockey and his expertise in knowing what hockey was about and what his program needs to be set GHA in the right direction.”

To hear Muhlfeld and Shaw tell it, Murray and Sheri Craven singlehandedly kept the GHA afloat in the early days, donating their expertise, time and valuable equipment to the cause. Craven was instrumental in getting the GHA accepted into the East Kootenay Minor Hockey League, a highly competitive collection of primarily Canadian squads, all of whom allow for much easier travel for GHA teams than, say, driving over mountain passes to places like Billings during the winter months, although GHA teams do also compete in the Montana Amateur Hockey Association.

“We’re the only team in the state that is able to play in two divisions,” Shaw said. “Murray and his wife, Sheri, at the time they basically managed everything … They were the equivalent of a board of five or six people.”

Shaw grew up in the Flathead Valley but not as a hockey player, instead competing for the Kalispell Lakers baseball team and playing football well enough to earn a spot at Carroll College after he graduated from high school. When he moved back home, Shaw took up hockey for the first time and remembers playing games in less than ideal conditions during rough Montana winters. So when he became the GHA’s president in 2014, one of the top items on his agenda was to fully enclose the rink at Stumptown Ice Den to allow for hockey and other ice sports to be played through the summer.

“When I came on, the rink would open up, basically, in September and would shut down by April,” Shaw said. “The Whitefish community is such a great destination for the summer, (so) if we can keep the rink open we will get more people on the ice.”

Shaw teamed with the Glacier Skate Academy, a figure-skating program, and after some bureaucratic wrangling they convinced the Whitefish City Council to approve plans to keep the Ice Den open all year in 2015. In the time since, the rink has become a hotbed for activity, with the GHA expanding its offerings, designated stick-and-puck times provided by the rink’s management for youngsters to hone their skills, the adult league’s continued growth in size and scope, now with A, B and C levels, and outside organizations holding camps and clinics in the summer months.

“Anytime I go by that rink and there’s any kind of program with kids, there’s 30-plus kids on the ice,” Shaw said. “It’s exactly like ‘Field of Dreams,’ if you build it they will come. We’re one of the only rinks to have year-round ice, so we’re going to be a destination place for people who want year-round ice.”

Glacier Hockey Association U-10 players practice at the Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish on Oct. 2, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Muhlfeld, an East Coast native with strong hockey roots, has already overseen more significant change in 2018. Ryan Ulvin was brought on as the GHA’s first-ever executive director alongside Muhlfed, and the two have helped launch the new house-league Yeti program for young hockey players in the Flathead Valley.

Yeti is just the next evolution for the GHA, a chance for its youngest players to get a taste of the game without having to travel any farther than Kalispell. A collaboration with the Kalispell-based Flathead Valley Hockey Association, the Yeti league is for players 10 and under who will play games against one another at both the Stumptown Ice Den and Woodland Park in Kalispell during two eight-week sessions, one beginning this month and another in January.

The league offers an opportunity for players of any skill level to enjoy the game of hockey with a limited time commitment and limited expense, the foundation of a pyramid that Muhlfeld uses to explain how the GHA will continue to grow. The more opportunities for young players to be involved in the sport, and the more fun they have from an early age, the more likely they are to stick with the game and excel as they grow older, Muhlfeld believes.

“I think it all kind of goes hand-in-hand,” Ulvin added. “The priority of the GHA should be (growing the game of hockey), and once you get the hooks in we can provide higher-caliber opportunities.”

The GHA fields teams at a number of different age and skill levels, up through high school, for both boys and girls, and a joint Kalispell-Whitefish program, the Flathead Fusion, offers an opportunity for high schoolers. And while fun is still the focus for all levels of the GHA, teams at every age level have won league championships in recent years, and a handful of former players have gone on to achieve great success beyond Whitefish, including Jake Sanderson, a member of the U.S. National Under-17 team who recently committed to play hockey at the University of North Dakota.

“I think our quality coaching is really a main reason (for our success),” Muhlfeld said. “We’ve got a lot of experienced folks, people that love the game and want to give back.”

Muhlfeld credited Craven for establishing a baseline from which the GHA could build, and for his part Craven is still keeping a watchful eye on hockey in his adopted hometown, even as he embarks on a similar project as president of the Vegas Junior Golden Knights, a new youth hockey program.

“I’m thrilled,” Craven said when asked what he thought of the GHA today. “I would have hated to have left after the 10 or 12 years that I was there and see it fall apart. I think we left it in good hands and the stewardship is there to help grow the programs … It’s near and dear to my heart and that will never change.”

Participation in the Glacier Hockey Association is open to residents from throughout Northwest Montana, and signups are still being accepted for this season. For more information on the GHA, visit www.glacierhockey.org.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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