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10 Nov 2016

Steve Kelly on Sports: The Desert Blaze Teams Are Popularizing Hockey in the Coachella Valley

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It was a balmy 86 degrees when I decided to drop by the Desert Ice Castle in Cathedral City.

Built via a public-private partnership in 2011, the rink is at what was once the site of a Coca Cola-bottling plant. On this day, it was a beehive of activity as members of the Desert Blaze hockey program skated on the ice. Overseeing the practice was Jeff Larson.

A 54-year-old native of Minnesota, Larson played collegiate hockey at the University of Minnesota and was an acquaintance of Herb Brooks, a hockey legend who coached the U.S. men’s hockey team to the “Miracle on Ice” gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. He works with a cadre of coaches in the program.

“The owner of the rink approached me and asked if I could help start a hockey program five years ago. Having played since age 6, the game is in my blood, so I signed on,” Larson said. “We started out with some free and open tryouts. We didn’t even have enough equipment for the kids. The rink bought 30 sets of gear, and we got a grant from the National Hockey League Players’ Association for another 30.”

Of course, you can’t play ice hockey without knowing how to skate, and when the Desert Blaze teams began, many of the players had only seen hockey on television—and had never been on ice. Larson called in some favors, and some former Canadian and U.S. players helped get the program off the ground.

“We had about 40 kids raring to go,” said Larson. “We opened up the gate—and 40 kids fell right over. Fortunately, we had some good skating coaches around, and we righted the ship.”

Nowadays, most players have taken skating lessons before joining. The Desert Blaze program includes five teams, set up according to age groups, that travel. The players range in age from 6 to 17, including some female players at the younger levels.

Being a hockey mom or dad means a lot of driving: The Blaze teams play throughout Southern California.

“It takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice on the part of parents,” Larson said. “Parents travel many miles to support the Blaze on the road. It takes a special kind of parent to be a hockey mom or dad, and we are lucky to have them.”

While still somewhat exotic here in the desert, ice hockey is receiving increased support. The Desert Blaze teams have received help, including coaching clinics, from the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. The two NHL teams and the minor-league Ontario Reign also try to schedule game outings for the teams. In fact, several Los Angeles Kings alumni are scheduled to compete in a fundraising golf tournament hosted by the Blaze on Friday, Dec. 2.

“There are quite a few ex-NHL players like Grant Fuhr and Jim Pappin who live in the desert. We reach out to them and they stop by. The kids really enjoy that,” Larson said.

The future looks bright for hockey in the desert. There are rumors that an NHL team may use the Desert Ice Castle as a one- or two-day practice facility in 2017. The St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have stopped by Cathedral City, and at least two NHL team owners have homes here in the desert.

For more information on the Desert Blaze or the Dec. 2 fundraiser, call 760-578-9080, or visit www.desertblazehockey.com.

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