Hockey parents know that family road trips aren't limited to summer vacations. During the season they load up their minivans and SUVs with gear, snacks and kids to make the trek to whatever rink is hosting the tournament for that weekend. Whether it's a one-hour drive or an excursion across state lines, hockey families are always ready to hit the open road.
Still, for most teams the traveling woes are shared with the comfort of staying close to home and hosting competition at a local rink. But for teams out of Grand Junction, Colo., there was no such thing as a home-ice advantage after the community lost its rink just prior to the start of the 2010-11 season. That's when the long drives that were normally saved for jamborees and tournaments were used for practices and "home games," too.
"When we lost the rink everyone was devastated," said Ken Walter, whose son Eric plays for the Grand Valley Junior Mavericks Squirt team. "But we knew that we wanted to do it for the kids and agreed to make the commitment to pull off a season at all levels despite no local rink."
The Glacier Ice Arena opened in the summer of 2006 and housed clinics, adult, women's and youth hockey before being forced to close its doors due to a malfunction of its refrigeration unit several months prior to the start of the season.
And while the ice and the Glacier Ice Arena may have been melting away, there were 14 kids who were determined not to let the same thing happen to their season.
"I knew I wanted to keep playing because hockey is my favorite sport," said Junior Mavericks forward Eric Walter. "The drives were long and boring but it was still fun to be able to play."
And the parents and coaches echoed the sentiments.
"This year was a season full of time, money and travel but we were rewarded for our effort in the end," said Junior Mavericks Squirt Head Coach Tyler Bittner. "The kids were eager to play and have fun even if that meant getting up at 5 a.m. to make the drive for just another practice. They never lost the passion for the sport, which I think is why the parents were willing to make the commitments that they did for the season."
Opening the season with dryland practice in October, the Junior Mavericks started traveling for practices to Craig -- 150 miles and a three-hour drive on a good day -- whenever they could get available ice. Local associations in Glenwood Springs and Gunnison also opened their doors to welcome the Junior Mavericks.
Each practice and all 20 games on the road finally led the Junior Mavericks to their longest road trip yet; to Denver for the state championships.
"Last year we had come so close to winning the state championship, losing in the last seconds of that game that we set it as our goal at the beginning of the year," said Bittner whose team finished with an 18-1-1 regular season record.
"First we won the Rocky Mountain Youth Hockey League and the next thing we knew, we were being crowned the 2011 CAHA Squirt C State Champions. To have accomplished all these kids did with all the travel it really was something."
And, as they proudly hoisted the trophy at center ice, the miles of driving and hours away from home were suddenly well worth it, for both the players and the parents.
"We wanted to do this for the kids," said Walter. "In the end that's what really mattered. To see my son out there and having the time of his life was what it was really all about."