The crunch of sharpened skates gliding across a fresh ice sheet.
Pucks clanging off metal goalposts and knocking into the boards.
The cracking sound of stick blades on the ice.
A rising cheer as a puck slides past a goaltender.
These were the sights and sounds at Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish last week as the Los Angeles Kings held a summer hockey camp there for a second year in a row.
“It’s always good to come to these small towns,” Kings alum Derek Armstrong said. “Our job is to help grow the game of hockey around the world.”
The camp is run by the Kings’ hockey development staff and several Kings alumni players. It’s was the first of eight camps the Kings will put on across California and the Northwest this summer.
Why come to Whitefish?
The Kings first pinpointed northwest Montana as an area without an NHL market that had a need for NHL support. Montanans don’t have a local team but can watch both Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche games on TV. Some even claim the Calgary Flames as their local team.
“It’s kind of an area we feel like we can step up as a club and provide that,” Courtney Ports, the Kings’ manager of hockey development said. “That’s been kind of a main goal for us. We had kids driving from five hours away to come to the camp. It just goes to show when you’re dedicated to hockey, you’ll do anything you can to get there.”
Ports works alongside former NHLers Kyle Calder and Armstrong and hockey development coordinator Marisa Blanco. Armstrong is also the Kings’ director of hockey programming and curriculum.
“This is awesome, giving back to the kids,” Calder said. “Any time you can give back, it’s a great feeling and watching these kids develop and grow when we were here last year and then seeing the same kids this year and they’ve gotten better and that’s what these camps are for.”
And sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s having more fun — the former NHL players or the kids. Armstrong finds there are still plenty of similarities.
“The ice smells the same, the pucks are still hard, you’ve still got to tie your skates, you’ve got to smell that stinky gear,” Armstrong said. “We were fortunate to get to play one game, let alone being drafted into the NHL, but we love to give back. We all have a lot of fun but that’s why hockey is such a unique thing.”
At the start of camp, players aged 6-15 are separated into groups based on age and skill after an evaluation skate.
After that, drills are run according to the American Development Model, or ADM, used by USA Hockey and the NHL’s Learn to Play program.
Players have two hour-long sessions on ice and dry land training in between. On the final day of camp, players participate in an NHL-style scrimmage, where each player’s name is called over the public address system and the national anthem is played before the game starts.
But the main thing is having fun and fostering a love of the game that lasts a lifetime.
“That’s what helps grow the sport,” Armstrong said. “Obviously every kid wants to play in the NHL, win the Stanley Cup, that’s important, too. But it’s important that they want to play when they’re 7 years old and when they’re beer league players. Everyone ends up playing beer league eventually. I do.”
This year, there were 31 players at the Whitefish camp. Six were goaltenders.
“We don’t normally see goalie turnout like that,” Ports said. “It’s good to see that the goalie position’s becoming more popular and a few more kids are jumping on. That’s an area that we know there’s room for growth.”
Another area of growth has been the uptick of interest in girls hockey. Three of the players at the Whitefish camp were girls.
According to USA Hockey enrollment numbers, registered girls and women increased from 79,355 in 2017-18 to 82,808 in 2018-19. In Montana’s region, Northern Plains, that number was 3,497 in ’18-’19, up from 3,367 the year before. For Montana, the number of girls and women registered with USA Hockey jumped from 998 in ’17-’18 to 1,073 this year.
Overall USA Hockey registration was up from 562,145 the year before to 567,908.
With Seattle set to get its own NHL expansion franchise in 2021, Calder predicts those numbers will get even larger, especially in the Western states.
“I think you’re going to see this area really take off,” Calder said. “It’ll be exciting for everybody. It’ll take some time but I think once it catches on, it’ll be great.”
Northwest Montana isn’t without its hockey connections, though, and its proximity to Canada is an added benefit.
Golden Knights’ owner Bill Foley owns property and several restaurants in the area. Murray Craven, the Knights’ former vice-president, calls Whitefish his home during the offseason.
The Knights visited Stumptown in 2017 for a celebration ahead of the team’s inaugural season.
Former Calgary Flames captain Lanny McDonald co-owns Tamarack Brewing Company in Lakeside.
Stumptown itself is home to youth hockey and adult leagues. In the winter, an outdoor rink in Woodland Park in Kalispell hosts hockey leagues, public skates and the Craft Brewer’s Cup, a hockey tournament and brewfest that benefits local youth hockey.
Retention rates are higher the earlier a player starts in the program than among those who start later, according to Ports. And hockey camps for the younger set boost skill development, too, producing more well-rounded players as they move up the ranks. That’s why camps like the Kings run in LA and across the Northwest are vital to the growth and survival of the sport.
“They get in early at a very entry level, they get the whole full set of gear and get to play, but they fall in love with the game at a young age,” Ports said. “They don’t necessarily have to all make it to college or all make it to major-junior or whatever route they choose, but they still love the game and they’re still fans of the game, which is super important for us.”
See @lakingslocalhockey on Instagram for more photos and videos of the Whitefish camp posted by the Kings’ staff.