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McConnell grants help youth hockey programs during pandemic

Athens program among those dealing with roadblocks during a difficult year

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Jason Stengel grew up with essentially three sports for kids his age to play -- football, baseball and basketball -- and jokes that soccer came along some time when he was growing up as well. 

Suffice it to say, though, that hockey wasn't really on the list. Things are different now that he's settled in Marietta, Ohio, though, and at one point a few years ago a friend suggested his son give the sport a try. 

"I said, 'OK, I'll ask,'" Stengel says now as he looks back. "So I went and asked my 8-year-old son to put on skates and a bunch of stinky used equipment and give it a go, and he said yes and spent 30 to 45 minutes on the ice, just on his face the entire time. I'm taking pictures and video and chatting with my wife saying, 'This is not going well at all.' 

"He came off the ice red-faced, huffing and puffing, and I said, 'Well, you gave it a try, didn't you?' He said, "I loved this so much. It's so awesome.' That was the start of his hockey career." 

Fast-forward a while and Stengel is now the president of the Athens Youth Hockey Association, which has roots back to the 1960s and operates youth-level teams from age 6 up as well as the Athens Bobcats, a high school club team that participates in the Ohio Scholastic Hockey League. There isn't much in the way of rinks in southeast Ohio, so Stengel and his son have to operate out of Bird Arena, which is on the campus of Ohio University in Athens, about an hour drive from Marietta. 

But that just shows the dedication of the hockey diehards in that part of the state. A full two hours from Columbus, where the sport has grown immensely over the past three decades and truly exploded after the creation of the Blue Jackets, Athens has its own hockey culture highlighted by the AYHA, high school program and a successful OU club team that has a dedicated following. 

"Athens is this little island of hockey in southeast Ohio," said Valerie Young, who has spent the past decade in various leadership roles in the organization since her son joined the program. "Ohio University has ACHA teams, and back in the early 2000s, Athens actually won the state championship in high school. There's been an ice hockey program there for a really long time.  

"We're sort of out of the way, but there's this corner of hockey mania. People here root for the Blue Jackets. You see a lot of hockey stuff, and there's a lot of people that have season tickets to see the Blue Jackets in a normal year." 

This year has been harder than ever for the AYHA to serve the community, though. The biggest culprit is the Covid-19 pandemic that has impacted everyone in its own way, and for this organization, it's made life nearly impossible. The most tangible impact is OU's decision to close Bird Arena to much of its programming, a decision that means Athens hockey will not be able to use its home ice for the entire 2020-21 season. 

The impact cascades from there. Without a rink to use on a daily basis, most of the Athens teams have been practicing around once a week, and they've had to travel to Columbus to pick up the ice time. Young said an organization that had grown to include 100 to 110 kids each year only has about 60 participants this year because of the uncertainty and difficulty of getting on the ice. 

"What our program really relies on is using a hometown rink," Young said as she watched her son take part in a recent practice at the OhioHealth Ice Haus. "Right now I'm driving 90 minutes to Columbus so my kid can get on the ice. We're already addicted, but when your kids are 6, 7, 8 (or) 9 years old, you want a hometown rink, right? Those are the days we could practice and then we'd go to Larry's Dawg House (in Athens) after practice and all the kids would eat hot dogs and milkshakes together. That's a lot of what makes it fun." 

The troubles the Athens program faces are much like those facing youth and high school organizations across the area, which is where the Blue Jackets can step in. Recently, the club announced the McConnell Education Foundation's annual grants, which have awarded more than $1.5 million to high school programs from across the state every year since 1998. This year, there were 36 programs that received grants, ranging from programs like Athens around the state to varsity programs in the Capital Hockey Conference. 

Young said the grants have been a big help over the years, especially as Athens has tried to encourage the growth of its coaching pool. The Blue Jackets have also partnered with AYHA to operate the popular CBJ Learn to Play program in Athens, and grants awarded from the Blue Jackets Foundation has been used in the past to bring skills coaches to Athens to teach the group. This year, the focus will be on making sure the kids who can't get on the ice still get a chance to have a hockey experience.

"We're doing a lot more off-ice training," Young said. "We've been practicing in a pole barn in Athens County off the ice. Now that we finally know that we will not get on the ice at all this year, we're starting to think about what we can do for the younger kids. How can we get a head start on next season?" 

It's a difficult balance in a difficult time, but the hope is the Athens hockey will weather the storm and come back better than ever. 

"During the time that I've been in this, I always wanted that when my kid graduated that Athens hockey would be even stronger than it was when we started," Young said. "The fact that he is being coached right now by people who graduated from this program and are giving back to it, that's exactly what you would want, that it's important enough in people's lives that they want to give back to it when they grow up.  

"Thinking about how do we make sure that happens and we come back stronger next year is really important." 

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