The Redwood Empire Ice Arena sits in the heart of Sonoma County wine country about an hour from San Francisco, normally about as picturesque a setting for a hockey rink as one could imagine.
The facility, also known as Snoopy’s Home Ice, was built in the late 1960s by Peanuts cartoon creator Charles Schulz. It’s home to the annual Great Pumpkin Smash Halloween Mite Jamboree, where teams of 8U hockey players from the Santa Rosa Junior Hockey Club participate in a day-long tournament each October.
This year, both the arena and the tournament almost literally went up in smoke as wildfires swept through the northern California region.
But aside from a weeklong power outage and melted ice, the arena remained virtually untouched. The biggest question facing tournament organizers was: Should the event go on as planned? A dozen families of the hockey club had lost their homes, along with most of their hockey gear. With the event scheduled for Oct. 22, that left little time for organizers and arena staff to have everything ready.
But any thoughts of canceling were put to rest at a club board meeting shortly after the tragedy, according to tournament director Rebecca Henderson.
“[The thought was] we need to do this,” Henderson said. “The kids need to be back on the ice. Just giving them that bit of normalcy, especially at a time like this, would be more beneficial than canceling.”
The staff at Snoopy’s Home Ice worked tirelessly from 7 a.m. until after midnight for a week and a half to get the facility up and running in time for the tournament. “We knew it was a busy time, and the club really needed to get back out there,” said Blake Johnson, the facility’s hockey director. “The jamboree is one of the big fundraisers. We’re really happy that we were able to get them out there when we did.”
Once word got out that the club needed help, donations began pouring in. The NHL’s San Jose Sharks, through their suppliers from CCM and Bauer, outfitted many of the players with skates, bags and other gear. Coaches from area clubs offered to volunteer their time at the tournament all day, if necessary.
Heather Topham, whose son Matthew plays for one of the 10U teams, started a GoFundMe page. In two days, over $50,000 was raised. “It was incredible,” Topham said. “We had clubs [contributing] from here, and random people from across the U.S. and even other countries.”
The success of the jamboree exceeded expectations. A total of 18 teams participated, up from 14 the year before. Each team played four 25-minute scrimmages half-ice, without keeping score. But the event, and the days leading up to it, was about more than hockey. Families whose homes had suffered less damage took in others who were displaced. One woman sent Topham a photo of her rental home that she and her family had to evacuate. The house remained standing, but the home behind it was badly burned.
“They’re back in, but it’s a different neighborhood,” Topham said.
The recovery process is far from over. No one knows this better than Shawn Pabros, a coach for the Santa Rosa 8U team. Pabros, an EMT, worked 14- to 16-hour days for nearly a week after the fires started. During that time, his family was forced to evacuate their home near Coffey Park. Fortunately, his home was spared, but the scars in his neighborhood are still visible. “You drive down the roads, and you see the devastation,” Pabros said. “You can’t forget about it.”
Hockey, he believes, has allowed players to go back to being kids, and having fun on the ice is a major theme of USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
“It’s a time for them to forget about everything,” Pabros explained. “They don’t have to worry about what they’re going to come home to, or what they don’t have. They can just focus on that hour or hour and a half on the ice, just play the game, and have fun with their friends.”
Moving forward continues to be a major objective for the Santa Rosa Junior Hockey Club. Topham says plans are underway to distribute funds to the 12 hockey families who lost their homes. Anne Woida, the club’s current president, hopes to organize an aid night to assist families who are still recovering.
“We want to continue to support them through the remainder of the season in any way we can,” Woida said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc