It should come as no surprise to followers of hockey, particularly Team USA, that the skaters from Palmer High School saw fit to alter the appearance of the Soldotna Sports Center early Friday.
What was shocking, however, was the alteration itself. Andrew Carmichael, who has overseen operations at the Sports Center long enough to witness everything from a building littered with dog hair to a trout in a toilet, said the actions of the Palmer players came "out of the blue" and would result in a letter to the school board.
Many coaches and school administrators also were taken aback, giving the alterations more "Wows" than a clear view of Denali gets on a July day. Soldotna principal Sylvia Reynolds said she plans to detail Palmer's ploy to the Alaska Schools Activities Association.
Even Kenai Central coach Brian Gabriel Sr. admitted this is something he never would have thought of as a way for killing down time on a road trip.
After reading the above, most readers wanting to dismiss hockey as a sport of fighting goons are probably twisting the caps off a celebratory bottle of Zima. What could these idiots have done this time? Flooded the ice with toilet water? Duct-taped a live moose to a goal post?
Sorry. It was nothing like that. The Palmer players merely showed up at 10 a.m. Friday and cleaned the Plexiglass at the Sports Center for three hours as a community service project. Carmichael said this is the first time a high school team has done something like this for the Sports Center.
The 17 players and two managers divided into teams of three, with each team taking hour turns scrubbing the glass and finishing off what Carmichael said amounted to 40 hours of labor. The other two teams, meanwhile, slurped free Powerade and played gratis wallyball provided by the Sports Center.
Admittedly, cleaning Plexiglass at a sports arena doesn't rank up there with caring for orphaned infants in India in the service spectrum, but here's why the rest of Alaska's high school hockey teams, and all other Alaska sports, should pay attention to what Palmer did.
Decent down time -- Due to the long distances separating population centers in Alaska, teams are often forced to stay overnight in remote locations. This gives large groups of adolescents large doses of free time. A team can stay in a town three days and only spend about six hours playing a game. Bowling, movies and homework can only occupy a kid for so long.
"When I was a kid, it took an hour alone with my friends for a bad idea to come up, and that bad idea always sounded good," Carmichael said.
All teen-agers certainly aren't bad people, but the teen-agers that are good are usually those who are too busy with constructive activities to plot destructive ones.
"All kids that play hockey are good kids," said Mike Logan, the president of the Palmer Hockey Association. "Sometimes they just have too much energy."
The moral of the story is, if a tree's gonna fall, one might as well make sure it falls in the right place.
A good way to give back -- By merely being there, visiting and home teams alike take a toll on facilities. The Sports Center is a good example.
For starters, Carmichael said the city of Soldotna is subsidizing $50 per hour of the $190 per hour it costs to run the Sports Center.
Then, of course, there's the repairs that have to be made to the building after nearly every weekend of hockey. Carmichael said only one or two incidents every year are intentional. Most are just things like 8-foot high lights accidentally broken by a 6-footer on skates with a careless stick on his shoulder.
"Everybody's always saying how nice it is that those communities that we visit are willing to help us out," Palmer coach Brian Fish said. "We thought it'd be nice to help those communities out, too."
The public relations factor -- Al Howard, the athletic director at Soldotna, said Palmer came out of this "smelling like roses." As anyone who has spent time in a hockey locker room can tell you, getting a group of hockey players to smell likes roses is a major coup.
Due to an increasing number of penalties and boorish actions like pugilism in postgame handshake lines, hockey was put on probation by ASAA for the 1996-97 season. Since that time, the image of the sport has improved, but by removing black marks from the glass at the Sports Center, the Moose certainly continued to remove black marks from the sport.
"Everybody watches the pro hockey players always fighting," said Palmer's Jonah Stewart, an assistant captain. "That's the kind of reputation hockey has. This community service is a chance for us to change that reputation."
Learning the value of service -- The reason Palmer's project worked is that the kids wanted to do the community service. The Palmer Hockey Association came up with the idea and took it to the team captains. The captains then discussed the project with the team. Because the players weren't forced to do the service, they did a good job at it.
"I figured if people came to our town and helped out, we'd like it to be done right," said Palmer's Travis Thornhill, the team captain. "When we helped out, we made sure we did the job right. It was fun."
In addition to teamwork and leadership, Logan said the project showed Palmer's players what an integral part service plays in building healthy communities.
"If kids get in a positive mode, they won't go off breaking stuff," said Thornhill, who said the team is thinking about a quarterly service project.
Palmer has come up with a great way for teams to fill down time during road trips, give back to communities, enhance the image of athletics and learn the value of service.
Here's hoping that in the near future similar alterations at the Sports Center, and many other communities around the state, aren't so shocking.
This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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