South Lake Tahoe is a magnet for regional hockey players

by Brian Bahouth

Image courtesy of South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena.

Carson City – If you live in northern Nevada and want to play youth or adult recreational hockey, your options are few.  A decade ago there was an indoor rink in Sparks, but they folded under the weight of energy and insurance costs. The City of Reno used to maintain an outdoor hockey-worthy rink in the area across from city hall, but a few years ago the sheet was moved to the entryway of the Greater Nevada Field, home of the Reno Aces. Now the rink has square corners and low, clear boards not meant for a slap-shot or hip-check, so if residents of Reno/Sparks/Carson/Truckee want to play hockey, the South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena is it.  To learn more about regional hockey dynamics, we spoke with Wren Alford, a manager at the South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena …

The rink in South Lake Tahoe is a single indoor sheet of ice.  According to the arena’s website, the rink has meant $14,000,000 in “economic value” for South Lake Tahoe and another $250,000 for non-profit organizations.  We asked Wren Alford how the facility is used.

“Mostly hockey.  The biggest thing we have is public skate, but we have more hockey players than we have public skaters.  Our public skate is mostly tourists,” Alford said. “After public skate, the thing that takes up most of our ice time is hockey by a long-shot.  We have a lot of hockey.

”Figure skating, we have a few really great figure skaters here, but we have very low numbers on that, and mostly because we can’t get a coach that lives up here.  You can’t really make a living teaching figure skating in this small town.”

Because the Tahoe rink is at roughly 6,200 feet above sea level, the slab attracts high caliber attention, especially during the summer months.

“Figure skaters who visit here and skate on the ice love it.  We had a girl from the Philippines come and spend six weeks here in the summer because our ices is so beautiful.  She’s on the Philippine national team. She was a beautiful skater,” Alford said.

The arena is home to co-ed adult and youth hockey, and according to Alford, half the people who participate are from outside the South Lake Tahoe area.

“I think it’s fifty-fifty,” Alford said about those who come from outside the South Shore area to play hockey.  “I talked to our adult league manager, and he is in agreement. He thinks the adult league is fifty-fifty, and I think youth hockey is fifty-fifty.  They come from Carson, Reno, Gardnerville and even the other side of the lake. We get people from Incline and things.”

Graphic by Nevada Capital News. Data from USA Hockey.

Now that Nevada has an NHL team, we asked Alford if she thought the Las Vegas Golden Knights inspire Nevadans to play hockey.  Alford said the Las Vegas team hasn’t made a noticeable difference, though the Junior A level Tahoe Icemen have inspired a lot of kids to play and compete.

“I think the enthusiasm for hockey has been growing over the last few years.  Yes, it continued to grow this year, but I didn’t see a leap, as I did the last few years,” Alford said.  “One of the things I attribute that (enthusiasm to play hockey) to also is the Icemen, the Tahoe Icemen. We have a Junior A team that plays here, and we had a packed house last season for all of our games.  People were loving that, and also the opportunities that there are for kids to try it (hockey).”

If you grow up near frozen ponds or lakes, all you need to play hockey are skates, a stick and a puck, but in a public league, the expense of equipment can be a barrier for many parents.  Alford said they have an introductory program that enables kids and parents to know if hockey is the right sport.

“We have a program we call the ‘Cubs’ where we … it’s only $6.00 to come.  We gear all the kids into hockey gear. All the coaches volunteer to help, and they all get the chance to try and play without the investment of hockey gear that parents dread.”

Image courtesy of South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena, by permission.

We asked Alford if she has witnessed the hockey bug bite children.

“Oh yes, that’s just my favorite part of the job.  I have picture after picture of kids just stoked because they were playing hockey,” Alford said with a smile you could hear over the phone.

Image courtesy of South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena, by permission.

An important distinction between the northeastern and western US is that municipalities typically fund and operate rinks across New England states and in Canada, but rinks in the western US are largely under private ownership.  There is an effort underway to raise enough money to build an indoor rink in Reno, but ice is notoriously expensive to maintain with micro-thin profit margins for those who would host a hockey league and public skating as a business.  For Alford, another sheet of ice in the region would not be competition but good for their operation and the sport.

“We’re all for it,” Alford said.  “I don’t think another rink would divide hockey players.  I think another rink would increase the sport, and everyone who plays it loves it.  Everyone who tries it loves it, and we want people to play against. We’ve got a great A League going.  A great B League going, a great C League going, but not enough teams for an A League. If we had a rink down in Reno, our A Leagues could play against each other.  There’d be more kids growing up playing hockey. Bigger adult leagues. More fun for everyone. I don’t think it would pose a threat at all.”

CAHA

There are not enough kids playing in South Lake Tahoe to support a league, so kids who play organized hockey in South Shore, boys and girls together, are on travelling teams that play in locations across northern California as part of the California Amateur Hockey Association, perhaps the fastest growing youth hockey organization in the nation, and in recent years, California amateur hockey has boomed.  According to USA Hockey data, the number of 8 year old players jumped 25.2 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“All of our teams play in the same places,” Alford said.  “We play in Dublin, San Francisco, San Jose, Stockton, Fresno, Santa Rosa …”

There are a couple youth hockey state championship banners hanging in South Shore, but kids there share ice time with with adult hockey players, and Alford said the love adults have for hockey is evident in the distance they drive to play it.  She recalled a particular group of senior hockey players.

“We had a guy coming from Reno.  He was 78, and he planned the seniors early morning hockey thing.  Every Saturday he would come, and a whole bunch of people, seniors in their 60s and 70s came out to play hockey with him.  It’s something I love about it.  It’s something you’ll play your whole life.”

For more about regional ice hockey action from Wren Alford, listen to the audio interview embedded above …