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Heaven on Ice

Pond hockey, the purest form of the sport, inspired the central Washington town of Winthrop to create the Pacific Northwest's only NHL-sized outdoor rink and a tournament for adult-rec players

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

The Great Puckaroo Roundup: 2020

Winthrop's outdoor rink brings community together

The Winthrop Rink is an NHL-sized outdoor rink in Washington State that creates connection through a community's shared love of hockey

  • 02:17 •

The comparison is irresistible and involuntary. At 6:45 on a still-full-dark January morning, an employee switches on the lights to illuminate the ice at Winthrop Rink. The mind speaks without a sound: Field of Dreams. The hockey heart edits: Rink of Dreams. The view from a parking lot windshield: Hard to say, too many tears in the eyes and a larynx overcome with memories of skates and sticks and pads and laughter. 

The town of Winthrop (population, about 500) built an outdoor, NHL-regulation size sheet of ice in north central Washington's Methow Valley (population, about 5,900), starting with a set of used boards encircling a grass field in 2007, then adding the holy grail of refrigeration in 2015. The backdrop of North Cascades mountains is a natural perk of the rink's site. 

Believe it, Winthrop built it and people started coming to skate and play hockey. Kids and parents stream in after school for the public skate (often with figure skating and hockey volunteer coaches on ice), rink manager Steve Bondi's favorite time of the day along with watching his 12-year-old son or 16-year-old daughter during hockey practices. All fourth-graders at valley schools participate in rink program director Anna Sand free-to-skate initiative that begins with a class field trip, then any fourth-grade skater who chooses to return-daily, weekly, a few times-skates for free the entire winter. 

There is a robust Winthrop Rink youth hockey program at all age levels that takes the ice weekdays and hosts three weekend tournaments each season, including a 16U girls team coached by high school science teacher and part-time Zamboni driver Katie Leuthauser. Community activist and hockey player Jill Calvert tends to a 39-woman mailing list of locals (newbies welcome) who might drive 20 to 30 miles each way to participate in Friday night workouts and games. 

The town-owned-and-operated rink rents out the facility on select weekends (never holidays) to welcome adult hockey players from around the Pacific Northwest. Hence the windshield emotions, awaiting the first puck to drop last Friday in the opening game of The Great Puckaroo Roundup, an annual tournament staged by the Greater Seattle Hockey League and GSHL founder Andy Cole, a dreamer in his own right with an organization that now serves nearly 3,000 players on 100-plus teams in 16 divisions of play. 

Great Puckaroo stretches over three weekends, one each in November, December and January. Thirty-eight GSHL teams compete overall, opening faceoffs as early as 7:20 a.m. and as late as 10:20 to fit in all the games and make time for public skating mid-day Saturday. Most teams and players are repeat Puckaroo participants, proud to say they have made the trek the last three or four years even if they have to drive an extra hour to loop around a mountain closed in winter due to snow and ice. 

One player, Toby Mattson, arrived earlier than most of his Farm Fresh Eggs teammates (there is second team of the same hockey friends group called Real Bacon). He was staying at one of the visible rental cabins just a short walk from the rink. Mattson was dressed in full gear and street shoes. He keeps playing in the Roundup despite a recent move to California for a job. 

"As long as [former teammates] keep asking me back, I will be here in full equipment walking across the parking lot," he said, laughing. "I grew up watching my older brother play hockey in Spokane. Then I met my wife and moved to Seattle. I was inspired to join the GSHL." 

An hour later, Mattson entered the players bench gate after a first-period shift of the opening game between Farm Fresh Eggs and Jurassic Puck, which sported brand-new green and gold "third jerseys" made for this Puckaroo weekend. "I'm exhausted," Mattson said, smiling and not talking to anyone in particular. "I can't feel my feet. It's so great to be here."

Farm Fresh Eggs won two games and lost two games over the weekend, both losses to those Real Bacon friends. Simon Quinn notched three goals and three assists to lead the Eggs in points, but the real numbers are not on the scoresheet or the GSHL website: Quinn is 43. His son Christian, 19, scored the weekend's first two goals as his youngest teammate. Simon's 31-year-old twin brothers, Graham and John, donned Farm Fresh Eggs jerseys too. John's name was simply "Quinn" while the other sported a first initial. What gives? "I knew everyone was doing initial, so I thought I could keep it simple with just the last name," says John, grinning. 

"We got into hockey because our older brother," added Quinn during a post-game interview. "I played and loved all sports as a kid, but I got a severe case of FOMO [fear of missing out] when Simon started playing adult-league [in Seattle]."

The family-and-friends influence is an indelible element of recreational hockey culture. Michele Berg, an executive assistant by and in-demand goalie most adult-league nights (no everyone "loves net" like she does), learned about a women's hockey learn-to-play clinic from an office worker who dropped a flyer on her desk. She started playing goal at age 39.

Angela Yaworksky and NHL Seattle pro scout Cammi Granato share prominent elements of their on-ice origin stories: "My mom put me on figure skates as young girl [same as Granato]," said Yaworsky, 45, a registered nurse and an instantly evident smooth skater and stickhandler when jumps on shift with. "I walked by hockey games and asked my mom if I could play that instead [ditto Granato]. My town in Ontario had to ask permission to let me play on the boys' team. Girls didn't play [organized] hockey back then. I was allowed as long as I entered the locker room at the last minute when everyone was dressed." 

At least four couples, husband and wife, played alongside each other at Great Puckaroo-in two cases the wife's influence on her spouse and vice versa for the other two couples.

Real Bacon's Tracey Gauthier said "we decided it would be fun to do something sporty together and my husband [Matt Gauthier] is Canadian-he played as a kid and I decided to learn how to skate." Real Bacon teammate Will Parkkila tied a tournament game Friday morning with one second left to play. A former elite soccer player, Parkkilla said he decided to adopt hockey as his new team sport because his wife has long played roller hockey, plus Parkkila explained it is easier on his knees after decades on the soccer pitch.  

Not so easy were three early games on Saturday morning, when it started snowing steadily even before the first puck-drop at 7:20 a.m. featuring the Thrashers and NHL Seattle's own entry, the 32's, featuring sales, marketing and content staffers among others. Stickhandling was difficult and icing next to impossible. The puck simply stopped within a few dozen feet with any shot or longer pass. Heck, short tap passes traveled maybe inches. Bondi the rink manager said the previous weekend it had snowed "several pucks [deep] per hour" prompting the Zamboni to do a dry cut [basically scraping the snow; laying water would only freeze to form an unwanted bumpy texture] and perform the task every two periods instead of between games. 

All of this hockey love and bonding is made possible by leaders like Jill Calvert. 

"I started by playing pond hockey like everyone else in the Methow Valley," said Calvert, president of the Winthrop Rink board of directors. "Then a bunch of us worked with the town to operate a winter rink at the Winthrop Barn. We even had a Zamboni. Then we realized, you know what? We have to go bigger."

By 2003, after several rejections, Calvert and friends (including her sister Laurie) were awarded a matching funds grant by the Washington State Office of Recreation and Conservation. The money was used to acquire land just south across the river from Winthrop's main drag. In 2007, former rink program director Marc Robertson led a group of Phase 1 volunteers to build a rink with remaining funds. Some glorious winters followed, along with a clunker or two because flooding and freezing the grass field was impossible if the weather warmed too high. One winter skating season lasted just 14 days. 

Jill and Laurie Calvert hit the fundraising circuit again as part of what, kid you not, the Windsor Rink organization called its "Dream of Refrigeration." The dream turned reality in 2015, with enough to funds to install the refrigeration system: The short-form punchlist: Lay down three layers of visqueen (plastic sheeting), four inches of foam, 16 tons of rebar and wire mesh, 13.5 miles of PVC refrigerant pipe and 37,000 rebar ties. Next pour 165 yards of 5-inch-thick cement over the top, with only one inch of cement covering the pipes themselves.

"The fundraising for the refrigeration system was a snap," recalled Calvert between games last Saturday. "You can't believe how quickly we secured the donations [prompting matched fund from the state]. And I can't say enough about the volunteers for both Phase 1 and Phase 2. We have counted more than 850 volunteers. Remember this is Methow Valley [population 5,900]. We even had all sorts of high school students out here tying all those darn rebar ties. On the cement night, we had to cover it all with plastic sheets and it was raining. Tough job. The best part is everyone had a smile on their faces. We all know it has been worth it."

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