BY: SHAWN O’BRATE
RIVERTON – Over the weekend the ice hockey rink off Smith Road was finally able to be put to use as the Riverton Ice Hockey Association (RIHA) put their Riverton Rats on the ice against other young teams from across the state.
It all started Friday afternoon as the Rats could finally play a home game for the first time this season, thanks to the weather finally being cold enough to provide the outdoor rink with the temperature to sustain games.
Teams from Sheridan, Yellowstone, Cheyenne and Gillette all made the drive to take on teams filled with Riverton’s six-year olds and younger all the way to the RIHA’s 14U teams. All the traveling teams that made the trek to Riverton are able to practice earlier in the season and more due to their indoor rinks and facilities, something that RIHA has been looking to get their hands on for years now with this year being no different.
“Anything we can do to get our ice situation a little better and improve it is the goal,” Coach Jeremy Hughes said after beating Cheyenne on Sunday. “It helps as far as when the season starts and when it ends. Right now we’re up to mother nature because she decides when we can play. Getting a refrigeration system or an indoor rink would extend the season and it would give parents a lot better idea about when the season starts, when the season ends and all that.”
Despite having fewer practices and overall time on ice the kids of Riverton and the surrounding areas had a great first weekend of home games, playing 15 total games between 10u and 14u over the course of three days.
One thing that was obvious about the weekend’s games was the natural desire to win from the Rats’ players, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all about wins and losses to the organization and especially the coaches.
“I don’t hang a lot of goals on my kids, not the winning and losing kind at least,” Coach Roland Hancock of the 10u team said. “We talk about leadership, teamwork, hard work and we try to emphasize what kids are learning and don’t really focus on wins and losses.”
Hancock was on the board for the past five years while also coaching his son Kameron’s teams from 6u all the way to the 10u team he coaches now. In that time he’s seen a lot of growth from not just his own son, but everyone involved in the program even if they haven’t been skating very long.
“The best part, any coach will tell you but it’s true, it’s the kids. Especially at this age group,” Coach Hancock said. “They’re fun to be around, they’re like little sponges and I love watching them grow and mature and learn.”
Coach Hancock and Coach Hughes both insisted that the sport of hockey can be tough, especially at younger ages, but that the gifts that the sport brings are more than just accolades and a jersey number.
“I think you learn a lot of great life lessons,” Coach Hughes said. “Things are not easy. You’ve got to work for it, it’s a team effort and I think it’s a fun sport that kids, typically when they come out and try it, enjoy as long as you can get past the cold temperatures.”
“Hockey is a very unique sport in that it’s a small group of individuals playing together on ice,” Coach Hancock added. “It’s a tough sport to play, especially here in Riverton … but any kid can go play soccer. Running, jumping, all that is what you learn in most sports but in hockey you have to learn how to skate first, and that separates a lot of athletes, especially as they get older.”
The ice skating factor seems to be one of the reasons why many parents haven’t enrolled their child, no matter what age, into the RIHA program but Coach Hughes expressed that it does not matter how much experience they have on the ice.
“We’re always looking for new players,” Coach Hughes said. “Anybody new would be great to have, no experience necessary. We teach all of our kids how to play hockey and we hear it all the time, ‘well I don’t know how to skate, I can’t play hockey’ … well all the kids in our program, they didn’t know how to skate and they’re doing just fine. We’ll teach the kids as we go, they’ll get better as the season progresses and they’ll definitely have a lot of fun.”
One of those kids that learned how to skate and learned how to play hockey was William Winn, a member of Coach Hughes’ 12u team that beat Cheyenne on Sunday morning. It was in that game that Winn scored his first goal of his career after playing two years in the RIHA program.
“It felt good,” Winn said with a massive smile when describing his first goal. “I was basically just thinking it might not go in and seeing it go off his shin pad and go in it was just … it felt good.”
Coach Hughes also shared in his sentiment, snagging the referee after Winn’s goal and making sure to grab the puck as a remembrance for Winn.
“We love to see kids get that first goal cause it gives them a really great boost. They start feeling good about themselves, it definitely gives them a little pick me up so when it happened we got the ref’s attention and got the puck from him and now he has his first puck ever scored and it’s a memory he’ll have forever,” Coach Hughes explained.
The Riverton Rats’ Ice Hockey teams are split up into six specific age groups and titles: the Mini Mites (6u), the Mites (8u), the Squirts (10u), Pee-Wee (12u), Bantams (14u) and high school (16u). In every single one of those age groups there are kids that have to learn how to skate, how to play hockey, the rules of the sport and more, which makes the coaches’ job even more than just putting together winning game plans and rosters.
“Most coaches at Riverton believe in more than just winning and losing,” Coach Hancock said. “They want kids to learn how to be successful, they want them to enjoy hockey and play hockey for fun.”
And one of the only benefits of playing for the Riverton Rats, no matter what age, is the speedy advantage that comes with the outdoor rink.
“We definitely have a home ice advantage with the cold,” Coach Hughes said. “Teams aren’t used to it, it’s something they have to adjust to [but] we’re used to it because we practice in it. It’s a little quicker, it’s harder. A lot of rinks that are indoors, their ice is a little softer ‘cause it’s just not as cold, so it slows the game down and things happen a little faster. Plus we have some kids that have some wheels and can just go so having that speed on our ice definitely helps us too.”
The Rats don’t play on their home ice again until the weekend of January 20 when they will host teams from Sheridan, Cheyenne and Douglas. Be sure to dress warm and go root on the Rats even if you may not have family members playing in the game. They could use all the support possible through cheering and concession sales to help them raise enough funds for a new ice rink or a refrigeration system which would help extend the RIHA grasp and season!
Also, if you or someone you know are interested in putting your child in the RIHA program they are taking all applicants, even girls despite what some people may think, and can be reached through their Facebook page (Riverton Ice Hockey Association) and through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.