Most winters a group of west-side neighborhood kids and hockey teammates can be found on skates in the backyard of two Des Moines families.
That’s where the Clark and Jenson families have installed an outdoor skating rink for the past nine years. It’s a 50-foot-by-100-foot area that’s put up around Thanksgiving time and is usually ready to skate on, weather dependent, by Christmas. It takes a garden hose from each house turned on for 24 hours to fill the rink. Sometimes, skating can occur through mid-March.
“It’s a good thing to do outside in the middle of winter rather than being inside,” Dan Clark says.
On any given day, 15 to 20 kids of different ages could be using the rink. It’s mostly used by Clark’s son Austin, a senior at Roosevelt High School and some of his teammates on the Lincoln-Roosevelt hockey team. He got started playing hockey in sixth grade on the backyard rink with neighbor Greg Jenson, who used to play on the hockey team but has since graduated high school.
High school hockey league regroups with school teams
The Lincoln-Roosevelt team is a collaboration through the Des Moines Metro High School Hockey League. The league reorganized its team structure about 10 years ago through the influence of parents who noticed participation was trailing off. The thought was high schoolers weren’t interested in being placed on a random team and felt more pride representing their school, though school districts did not want to charter the sport. The league decided to align teams with area high schools, and nine teams formed in the Des Moines metro.
“It gives the kids that got involved in hockey a chance to continue through their high school years,” says Bill Watson, the commissioner of the league. “It does provide some affiliation with a school-based team,” which has attracted some players to the league.
Cade Maharry, 14, a freshman at Roosevelt, said he wanted to join the high school league because he wanted to play on a team that was affiliated with his high school. He’s been playing hockey for about five years since he was in third grade when Lincoln-Roosevelt Head Coach Brad Barrett, a family friend, encouraged him to do so.
“I like it a lot,” says Cade, who plays defense for the hockey team and is also on the Roosevelt basketball team. “You get to be aggressive while playing. It’s not just sitting around and doing nothing. You’re always doing something.”
Michael Watson, 17, a junior at Roosevelt, has been playing hockey since he was 4 years old. He picked up the game because his older brother and cousins were always playing it. This is his third year on the Lincoln-Roosevelt team, where he plays center.
He says he likes the intensity of the game and the fact it’s organized by school instead of a random team.
“People want to play for their school,” Michael Watson says.
He also plays baseball and football, and he thinks the physicality of hockey has helped him with the latter sport.
“It helps you mentally” prepare for a contact sport, Michael Watson says.
The Des Moines Metro High School Hockey League is all inclusive for any high school student despite experience level. The season begins in mid-October and runs through the first week of March. Teams play 20 games, plus an end-of-the-year tournament.
“We’re the outlet for everyone to continue to play once they reach high school,” says Barrett, the head coach of the Lincoln-Roosevelt team. “Hockey is a great sport because most metro areas have men’s rec leagues, and you can keep playing.”
Barrett says a wide range of kids play on the team — from those who are multi-sport varsity athletes and played since they were kids to others who didn’t pick it up until junior high.
There are 16 players, including two teenage girls, on the Lincoln-Roosevelt team, some of whom are from other Des Moines area schools because there are not enough players for some schools to have their own team.
Dan Clark says the league provides another sports outlet for teens.
“There’s been a number of boys in it who haven’t skated much before, and by the end of the season, they’ve become better skaters,” he says. “It’s a great sport and a great thing to do in the winter.”
League holds annual fundraiser for cancer survivors, banquet for players
The Des Moines Metro High School Hockey League has participated in several service projects through the years including Adopt a Family during the Christmas season.
Its biggest fundraising event is the annual “Pink in the Rink” event, which benefits cancer survivors. This year it will take place on Feb. 16 at the Metro Ice Sports Facility in Urbandale. Games begin at 3 p.m. The players will wear pink uniforms.
Family members and friends of players who are cancer survivors are invited onto the ice for an honorary puck drop. There are raffles, and each team raises money that goes to various cancer charities and treatment centers. Last year it was about $1,500 to the John Stoddard Cancer Center in Des Moines. The coach whose team raises the most money dies his hair pink.
The league will host its annual banquet on March 8, where scholarships and awards for top scorer, top goalie and others will be given to players. Since the league began a little more than a decade ago, between $30,000 and $40,000 in scholarships have been given to seniors pursuing post-secondary education.
“We treat it very much like it were a varsity sport at the high school,” Barrett says.
Players are asked to turn in their grades so coaches can see whether they are keeping up academically in the classroom. If players get in trouble off the rink, it can mean a loss of ice time or even removal from the team.
Participation decreases; coaches, players hope it will rebound in the coming years
Participation levels have gone down in recent years. Several years ago there were nine teams. There are now four teams in the league, which has some benefits, parents and players say. A smaller number of teams allows for more players on a team and several players in each position for more depth. Coaches think there will be enough participation to add a fifth team next year.
Watson, the commissioner, says participation also dipped because of disorganization among the youth hockey league, which means the decreased number of players has now trickled up to the high school level. The league appears to be rebounding with increased participation at the younger levels and after high school aligned teams were created, he says.
“It pulls in kids from the entire metro area,” Watson says. “These kids that are playing get a chance to meet or play with kids that they otherwise might not meet.”
Barrett says he hopes having the Iowa Wild hockey team in the metro will strike more interest in younger players, so the league can grow back to eight or nine teams.
Barrett, Hillcock and others say there are several factors that have contributed to the decline in participation: No. 1 is that it is an expensive sport. It can cost almost $1,000 to $1,200 for a high school player to get skates, jerseys, equipment and pay for ice time.
Hillcock says the specialization of sports in the United States also is to blame. When he was a youngster, most of his teammates played other sports during the off season, particularly soccer because the two complement each other in terms of improving a player’s foot work and body coordination. Nowadays, he says, most players are lost to hockey by ages 12 to 14 because they have decided to focus on a single sport. Hockey also gets more aggressive at ages 12 and 13 when body-checking becomes more prominent, which Hillcock admits could be a turn off to weaker skaters and smaller players.
The league will be in need of more players in the years to come. This year means the graduation of 28 of the 60 players who currently play in the league.
“We’re really hurting for kids to come out and play,” Hillcock says. “We could really use the support of kids who are interested in coming out and learning to play hockey.”