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Icebreaker tourney paves way for affordable youth hockey

Girls hockey player Ava Meyer, a precocious 12-year-old from Duluth, planned on putting a San Jose Sharks card, a Stewart's Bikes and Sports pin and a handwritten letter into a time capsule earlier this week at the Heritage Center.

Girls hockey player Ava Meyer, a precocious 12-year-old from Duluth, planned on putting a San Jose Sharks card, a Stewart's Bikes and Sports pin and a handwritten letter into a time capsule earlier this week at the Heritage Center.

When the capsule is opened 50 years from now, the youngsters of the future -- and their parents -- might not believe what they read: that there was a girls hockey association without a registration fee.

That's the reality for members of the Duluth Girls Hockey Association, and the biggest reason is this weekend's 16th St. Luke's Icebreaker Invitational. Besides showcasing Duluth as an envy of the Minnesota hockey community, the nation's largest youth girls hockey tournament is a major fundraiser that helps the association waive its registration fee.

The DGHA is a completely

volunteer-run organization that relies on countless hours of commitment from parents. This is the first year organizers felt confident the tournament could defray enough of the costs for girls to play free in their league.

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"It's all about this tournament," said tournament director Amy Schintz. "It's been a progression. The tournament has consistently grown, and we've made contacts along the way. It's to the point where we had to turn away more than 20 teams this year."

Schintz said the tournament's growth is the vision of longtime tournament director Bruce Buckner.

The tournament started with about a half-dozen teams, but about 80 teams have participated in each of the past three years. This year there are six divisions from 10U to 14U playing at seven rinks, with the host team, the Icebreakers, fielding four teams. The addition of Amsoil Arena could add another future venue, but the tournament is to the point where it's difficult to house all the participating teams.

"Where do you put everyone?" Schintz said. "We max out on hotels."

Youth leagues generally charge $250 to $350 to join, and that doesn't include "assessments," costs that arise during the season for additional tournament fees and practice time. Word must have spread this fall as the DGHA saw an increase in numbers, with about 80 girls registering -- some as young as 6 -- up from 60 the previous year.

Paul Lemenager of the DGHA said parents carpool to help offset travel costs, and the association will even find equipment for underprivileged girls who want to play.

"When push comes to shove, hockey is an expensive sport," Lemenager said. "We saw a lot of parents this year who came to us and said, 'We were going to have our girls play boys hockey, but you know what? When it comes down to it, my wallet is more important. We're going to give girls hockey a try.'

"We've got more numbers in the organization this year than we've ever had, and the fact the fees are waived is a big reason why. We're the only program in the state to do that."

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"Probably the country," said Icebreakers coach Brian Konowalchuk. "Through good fundraising and community support, we've been able to address one of the biggest problems in hockey, and that's expenses. This is great family time for me. I spent most of my time out on the rink growing up, and there's no place I'd rather be than with these girls."

Konowalchuk's brother, Steve, is a former professional hockey player who is now an assistant with the Colorado Avalanche, and his wife, Marcie, is the DGHA president. They have two girls in the organization, Hayley and Aspen.

Brian Konowalchuk coaches the Icebreakers 12UA team that includes Hayley, as well as Meyer, a seventh-grade winger from Woodland Middle School.

Fifty years from now, Meyer hopes there are more opportunities for girls to continue playing hockey into adulthood. College hockey may be in her future.

"It depends if I still like it, but I probably will," Meyer said. "I love hockey. I hope the girls sport grows bigger than it already is."

Related Topics: FAMILYHOCKEY
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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