Around 6 p.m., Woodland Park Ice Center turns into a hub of activity.
Bantam and peewee hockey practice is wrapping up. Parents and daughters file into the lobby, gear bags scraping the floor and hockey sticks clanking.
Flathead Lady Fusion U14 practice starts at 6:45 p.m on Tuesdays, 6:15 on wWednesdays.
Alexis Kersten places a bag of food on a table in the middle of the room, not far from where the rental skates are kept.
Her mom, Lacy Bradford, arrives shortly after and they both dig in. It’s become routine.
The table is where they eat dinner several times a week.
“She has back-to-back practices on most days, so we eat at the rink almost every night,” Bradford said.
She has five kids involved in the hockey program. Kersten is on two teams herself and is the team captain of the 14U Lady Fusion. She will play in seven games this weekend alone.
Lini Reading stands in the middle of it all, preparing practice plans and greeting players as they arrive. One brings her a homemade chocolate chip cookie.
Reading is the head coach of the Fusion. She’s had a hand in developing sports in the Flathead Valley for decades.
She was one of the founding members of the now flourishing Whitefish High School soccer program and coached from 1994 to 2008.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “We went through building that from scratch. There was a little bit of a club before we started. The same as this [Fusion].”
Not long after that, Reading’s daughter, a figure skater and softball player, decided she’d like to try playing hockey.
Reading, of course, was thrilled, since she’d been playing at Stumptown Ice Den already for years.
“I was a sports nut growing up and I still am,” Reading said. “Not quite as quick as I used to be, but I still just love it.”
Things grew from there. At first they played as the Glacier Avalanche at Stumptown. There was a team at Woodland Park already — the Flathead Flames. It started with a couple of tournaments where the two clubs competed as the Fusion. Organizers realized there was an opportunity to create a girls hockey program and so the current iteration of the Lady Fusion was born.
In addition to the 14U team, there is also a 19U team for girls.
The Fusion is part of the Treasure State League, competing against teams from Missoula and Butte. Next year, Reading hopes it will be even bigger.
“This is the smallest it’s ever been, this year,” she said. “We’re hoping next year Bozeman will have enough kids up in the age groups. Missoula’s been dominant for several years. They’ve got the numbers, they’ve got a great program, their coaches are awesome.”
Last weekend the Fusion put on its annual Winter Classic tournament, with Canadian teams from British Columbia and Alberta competing. The 19U team has its tournament the week after Christmas.
None of this would be possible without the work of volunteers. Parents have to volunteer a minimum of 25 hours per child. Bradford had over 100 hours to do and completed that last week.
“A lot of parents put on the Winter Classic,” Reading said. “Dave Cummings is our manager and he organizes everything, drives the Zamboni, gets the parents together.”
Fundraising is important, too. The Craft Brewers Cup, a brewfest and hockey tournament put on in early December, is a fundraiser for the youth hockey programs of the Flathead Valley Hockey Association.
“I’m not a parent coach,” Assistant Coach Sage Staven said. “I just volunteer. I love hockey. Because of things like the brewers fest, it helps cover my expenses when we go to tournaments and stuff like that. It’s cool for me to volunteer my time and to go with the girls on these trips and everything.”
In March, the team will travel to Arizona to take in a Vegas Golden Knights versus Arizona Coyotes game, thanks to Lindsay Fry from the U.S. National Team, who also works for the Coyotes.
Fry will host a clinic in Whitefish at the end of August.
Reading hasn’t had a kid in hockey for at least five years but she has no plans to stop coaching or playing hockey.
“Kind of like when I started coaching soccer in Whitefish, way, way back when, it was a fledgling sport in the state of Montana .. Just seeing the kids get opportunities I didn’t get to have when I was a kid is just awesome. I just love it,” she said.
Sports Editor Katie Brown may be reached at 758-4426 or firstname.lastname@example.org.