Home ice: New Yeti League gives kids chance to play competitive hockey without leaving the valley

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  • Wyatt Hanchett and Nick Schmidt-Sommer celebrate after a goal late in the third period during a game at Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish on Friday, Jan. 18. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Marin Weaver skates through the handshake line at the end of a game.

  • 2

    Players skate through the handshake line at the end of a Yeti League game.

  • 3

    A player on the red team skates with the puck as the red and blue teams square off during a Yeti League game at Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish on Friday, Jan. 18.

  • 4

    A red team player skates with the puck as the red and blue teams square off during a Yeti League game.

  • 5

    Players on the red team listen to their coach before heading out onto the ice.

  • 6

    Players on the red team watch the action during a Yeti League game.

  • 7

    Coach Shawn Baker keeps track of his players’ shifts on a white board.

  • 8

    A player on the blue team takes a shot.

  • 9

    Coach Shawn Baker speaks to one of his players during a Yeti League game.

  • 10

    A player on the red team shoots the puck on goal as the red and blue teams square off.

  • 11

    A blue team player skates with the puck against a red team defender.

  • 12

    Players pursue the puck after a shot goes wide of the net during a Yeti League game.

  • 13

    Players and coaches on the blue team huddle before the start of a game.

  • Wyatt Hanchett and Nick Schmidt-Sommer celebrate after a goal late in the third period during a game at Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish on Friday, Jan. 18. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Marin Weaver skates through the handshake line at the end of a game.

  • 2

    Players skate through the handshake line at the end of a Yeti League game.

  • 3

    A player on the red team skates with the puck as the red and blue teams square off during a Yeti League game at Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish on Friday, Jan. 18.

  • 4

    A red team player skates with the puck as the red and blue teams square off during a Yeti League game.

  • 5

    Players on the red team listen to their coach before heading out onto the ice.

  • 6

    Players on the red team watch the action during a Yeti League game.

  • 7

    Coach Shawn Baker keeps track of his players’ shifts on a white board.

  • 8

    A player on the blue team takes a shot.

  • 9

    Coach Shawn Baker speaks to one of his players during a Yeti League game.

  • 10

    A player on the red team shoots the puck on goal as the red and blue teams square off.

  • 11

    A blue team player skates with the puck against a red team defender.

  • 12

    Players pursue the puck after a shot goes wide of the net during a Yeti League game.

  • 13

    Players and coaches on the blue team huddle before the start of a game.

For many years, parents who’ve enrolled their children in Flathead Valley youth hockey programs have signed up for an all-consuming experience.

Participation on a competitive team has meant commutes to multiple evening practices at either the Whitefish or Kalispell rinks, bookended by weekend drives on sometimes treacherous winter roads to distant Montana cities or north to Canada.

“One of the constraints with youth hockey is that we live in a huge state and there is a lot of travel and a lot of money, which is a big barrier for families to get involved,” Ryan Ulvin, a hockey parent and member of the Glacier Hockey Association in Whitefish, said. “We’re offering a chance for kids to have the hockey experience but just stay local.”

Ulvin is referring to the Yeti League, a new collaboration between the Glacier Hockey Association in Whitefish and the Flathead Valley Hockey Association based in Kalispell. It aims to get young skaters on the ice and give them a competitive experience at a minimal cost to all involved.

A donation of jerseys from the Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL furthered the league’s goal of keeping costs down.

“As the parent of two kids who grew up playing sports in Montana I can vouch for how much time and money that demands,” Jodi Harms, president of the Whitefish Adult Hockey Association, said. “The Yeti program is about balance.”

Yeti League, which recently began its second session, is for boys and girls ages 7 to 10. Games are on Fridays with a few practices during the week. The only travel required is the distance between Kalispell and Whitefish, with games in either the Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish or the Woodland Ice Center.

“I’ve always been amazed at how many adult league players we have whose kids aren’t involved,” Dustin Zuffelato, a Kalispell youth coach and hockey parent, said. “People say ‘I can’t ski or do anything else. It’s too expensive and a big commitment.’”

Kids can join Yeti League if they’re lacing up their skates for the first time or are seasoned players. Yeti is a non-checking league, and boys and girls of all skill levels play together. Teams are drafted so each has roughly the same number of players at each level.

Newer players get the chance to learn from their experienced peers and the skilled players learn patience and cooperation.

“I think the primary message with the league is that hockey can be affordable, safe and fun for kids,” Matt Daniels, who has two children in the Yeti League, said. “Another great thing about this program is that kids who’ve never skated before can join and participate and are as welcome as a kid who’s skated for five or six years.”

The league is run with four teams in each age group, with kids around ages 9 to 10 on one league and another league with players ages 7 to 8. About 90 players participated in the first session last fall.

Like the local adult leagues, teams are re-drafted each session so the players get to know all the other kids, and play with kids of varying skill levels and under different coaches.

Yeti League games are also played on half ice. Daniels said he definitely saw his children’s skills improve during the first session.

“They have many more opportunities to touch the puck verses being in this giant rink where they’re chasing the puck from one end to the other,” he said.

Harms pointed out how helpful the smaller ice is for learning the dynamics of hockey.

“Newer players have more opportunities to contribute to the game and more experienced players are in a positionto gain awareness of others on the ice,” she said.

Yeti League also gives players a chance to develop without the pressures of making a traveling team or competing for ice time.

“That’s always been my pet peeve with youth sports,” Zuffelato said of the sorting of players by level, and sometimes the dismissal of players who don’t develop as quickly as others.

For more information on Yeti League visit:

http://www.glacierhockey.org/

https://www.flatheadflames.org/

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