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Literally Out of the Ashes, Kansas City’s THFF Day Succeeds

By Stephen Kerr, 11/15/17, 10:00AM MST

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September arena fire was a setback, but USA Hockey and others pitched in to help

At around 4:45 a.m. on Sept. 6, Kansas City Ice Center General Manager Dean Nelson was sound asleep when his phone rang. It was the arena’s maintenance manager, and what he had to say jolted Nelson awake: A series of small explosions had shaken the maintenance garage in back of the facility, blowing the door and a wall toward the arena.

It was the first cold night of the fall, and the building’s heating system had automatically kicked in. A gas leak caused the explosions in the garage, which ignited some fuel tanks stored there. The building, added in 2014, was just 25 feet away from the main structure.

“My initial reaction, of course, was hoping everyone was safe,” recalled Nelson, who also serves as hockey director for the Kansas City Youth Hockey Association. “My next [concern] was to the property.”

It took only a few minutes for Nelson to arrive on the scene. What he saw was sobering. While the arena sustained little damage, the garage had burned to the ground, along with trophies, pictures and other maintenance equipment. The KCYHA was gearing up for its annual Try Hockey for Free Day Nov. 4, to introduce new young beginners to the sport. Equipment that was intended for the event was also lost in the fire.

“I saw the video [of the destruction],” said Tom Tilley, an investment banker and KCYHA’s president. “It was surprising that it did not cause more damage than it actually did.”

Once the initial shock wore off, Tilley, along with the association’s program director, Mary Helmick, swung into action to replace the equipment. Helmick reached out to representatives from USA Hockey, who enlisted help from the National Hockey League. Tilley, who played in the NHL from 1988 to 1995 with the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks, placed a call to his friend Kevin Maguire, president of the alumni group for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Maguire’s help, the NHL Players Association also pitched in.

The effort paid off, as 100 sets of hockey gear, including skates, sticks, jerseys, helmets and bags were donated. The importance of the response wasn’t lost on Tilley.

“All three entities deserve a huge thank-you,” he said. “When you’re a small market like this, you can’t miss an opportunity to introduce kids to the game. The big concern was, if we don’t have any equipment, we can’t host an event in the fall. That could cause us to lose an entire age group in a year.”

Tilley credits USA Hockey’s Try Hockey For Free program for helping KCYHA evolve into one of the top five markets in the country in terms of participation.

“Literally within an hour, we’ve got kids who could barely stand up that are making a pass, and in some cases, getting up and down the ice,” he explained. “To me, it’s the easiest way to get a child into hockey. Give them the basics on how to use your edges or what a skating stride looks like … You can see a lot of progress that makes them want to do this.”

In three years as president, Tilley has also seen his association develop in other ways. When Lamar Hunt, Jr., son of the late Kansas City Chiefs owner, bought the ECHL’s Kansas City Mavericks in 2015, youth hockey in Kansas City was divided into several separate associations. Through Hunt’s involvement, the groups merged into one organization, which allowed USA Hockey’s American Development Model to flourish there under one umbrella. The merger also optimized budgets and the system of educating coaches through a single infrastructure.

“Through listening to people and sitting through meetings, this unification process became a top priority,” Hunt told the Kansas City Star in 2015. “You start to build those youth programs, from the participation level to the elite. There’s a thirst for growth here. We’re providing the outlet.”

Tilley calls Hunt “the Switzerland of the unification process,” pointing out the difficulty in convincing multiple groups to join forces.

“Anybody who tries to unify youth hockey most of the time [sees] their organization splinter,” Tilley explained. “What Lamar helped do was bridge the trust gap.”

Saving the Day

The KCYHA Try Hockey for Free Day ended up being a success, according to Nelson. Nearly 100 kids registered, and over 80 attended. “It was a huge relief to us, because it’s one of the main feeders to our hockey program,” he said. “If we get 80 kids in, we usually get 25 percent of them to sign up for the learn-to-play-hockey program.”

With the perseverance the KCYHA showed through recovery from its fiery setback, there’s every reason to believe that trend will continue.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc

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