Athens Youth Hockey celebrates 50 years, News (Athens Youth Hockey Association | Athens Ohio | Bird Arena)

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Athens Youth Hockey celebrates 50 years
Submitted By Deanna Schwartz on Friday, January 10, 2014
Posted: Wednesday, December 25, 2013
in the Athens Messenger
Written by Melody Sands

The one condition: the games could continue as long as no one got hurt. Sounds simple enough, but when considering the lack of hockey equipment that these youngsters had, safety became a large concern for parents. Kids wrapped magazines around their legs to serve as shin guards. Parker Walker, parent of Bill, decided to step up and organize the games. Walker, along with a few friends helped with teams and began fundraising efforts to fund the ice time.

The one condition: the games could continue as long as no one got hurt. Sounds simple enough, but when considering the lack of hockey equipment that these youngsters had, safety became a large concern for parents. Kids wrapped magazines around their legs to serve as shin guards. Parker Walker, parent of Bill, decided to step up and organize the games. Walker, along with a few friends helped with teams and began fundraising efforts to fund the ice time.

Around the same time, the Ohio University hockey team was clicking on all cylinders as a varsity sport. Many of these kids attended the games and began to see the players as idols. The kids would hang around the locker room after games to see their favorite players. In many instances, the players would give these kids some of their old equipment. Mike L’Heureux was one of the first players to deal out some of his excess equipment to these young players. Often, L’Heureux would join the boys in these late night games. He became so impressed with their perseverance that he agreed to coach them. Eventually, Walker along with Col. Dean Smith from the OU Air Force ROTC began to schedule games with Columbus teams.

As time went on, so did the hockey games. Association members continued to accept donations in the form of equipment donated from other associations, money for ice time and uniforms, and free instruction from Ohio players and coaches.

Volunteers have always been the heart of the AHYA effort, says current president Dan Gates. Throughout the entire timeline that expands over the 50-year year history of the AYHA, parents have worked tirelessly to make hockey a quality, extracurricular activity for the children of southeastern Ohio.

Currently, with the emergence of the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL, hockey is becoming more and more popular in Ohio. Organizations, like the Blue Jackets, have been working to make hockey a more viable alternative for families. The link between the Ohio University and AYHA still remains strong. Many of the Bobcat players and coaches provide clinics. Some of the current players also help with practices. The AYHA still explores many avenues designed to make hockey more popular and more affordable. Not just an “Athens” thing, the AYHA has attracted players from Logan, Nelsonville, Parkersburg, Huntington and Charleston, W.Va., and Ironton and Minford. No matter where the children come from, all would agree that experience that the AYHA has provided is tremendous, Gates says.

Fun facts about the AYHA:

• Ohio players, and local businessmen, Tiff Cook and Mike L’Heureux often played in the late night games with the kids who were a part of the first AHYA team. Both helped immensely with the start of the organization.

• In the beginnings of the AYHA, players would clean-up around Bird Arena in return for ice time.

• Ohio theatre major, Tom Duffy who played Dave Christian in the movie Miracle on Ice about the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, was once a volunteer coach in AYHA.

• With community support, the AYHA provides scholarship opportunities for families who may not be able to otherwise afford the fees.

• AYHA alumnae, Mike Jones played hockey on the West Point hockey team. Long-time player Brian Carlson graduated from West Point.

• Frequently, the Ohio Bobcat roster includes a former member of AYHA or two. Some of which have played on the National Championship teams that OU has had. In December, AYHA and Ohio player Duncan Green, traveled to Italy for the World University Games. The team won their first-round in the championships.

• AYHA have played exhibition games in front of NHL game crowds in both Pittsburgh and Columbus.

• In 1989, Tiff Cook coached the AYHA high school team that traveled to Helsinki, Finland to play four games. The ‘Cats went 1-2-1 for the trip.

• AYHA has indirectly helped Ohio attract quality hockey players. Many college players are attracted to OU because of coaching and sports administration programs. The AYHA provides players an opportunity to volunteer. Hence, it helps with their career goals.

• Many have noted the influence of former Ohio coach, Craig McCarthy. McCarthy has been credited with team development and providing more professionalism to the AHYA. McCarthy’s large hockey IQ, along with his organizational style provided a higher quality of instruction that has been carried over into today’s AYHA. He now coaches his sons Jake and Eli.

• Former volunteer and coach, Bob Koch, has been credited with getting the AYHA affiliated with the USA Hockey Association. This affiliation helped the AYHA by providing standards for equipment and officiating. The 20001-2002 AYHA High School team won the inaugural “Blue Jacket Cup” going 31-0 in the regular season and league tournament in The Greater Columbus Club High School Hockey League. They continue to be the only team that has ever gone undefeated.

The 2008 Varsity team came in second-place in The Blue Jacket Cup tournament, playing eight games in three days, but this squad went on to win the Buckeye Cup as victors of the state of Ohio Club Tournament Championship The 2010 Varsity team also won the Columbus “Blue Jacket Cup”, and battled into a four-overtime game to place second in the Buckeye Cup State Championship.

• Several AYHA graduates now coach the youth teams, including Nick Gates, who played Junior A hockey for the Wooster Oilers. He and Alex Hubbard coach the Varsity squad.

With a 50-year history, the AYHA is the oldest youth sports organization in the Athens area that provides teams from ages 5-18. Despite ongoing issues with funds, equipment, and numbers of participants, the organization continues to be a great option for the youth of southeastern Ohio. Most former players would agree the experiences of playing hockey in the AYHA has provided them with leadership skills, collaboration skills, friendships, as well as a great deal of memories that they can draw from for a lifetime. At the heart of this organization are the parents, coaches, sponsors, and the numerous volunteers that continue to lead the charge. It is truly the long hours that the volunteers put in that make the AHYA continue to thrive. With the persistence and passion that these volunteers provide, the AYHA looks to be a part of southeastern Ohio for many years to come.
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