Steamboat Springs — If you’ve bumped into 6-year-old Steamboat Springs resident Gavin Wittlinger in the past couple of years, there is a good chance he was wearing a U.S.A. hockey jersey. So, it’s safe to say, it was a big deal when he met and had his jersey signed by Jack O’Callahan and Dave Christian, both players from the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 Olympic hockey team.
O’Callahan and Christian, along with more than a dozen other National Hockey League alumni, were in town last week for the third annual Steamboat Hockey Classic, a fundraiser for youth hockey in Steamboat.
“This is the top, the cream of the crop, in terms of success in this professional sport. These are some of the most humble, gracious and engaging people you will ever meet,” said event co-chair and youth hockey coach Kerry Shea. “Our big goal is providing a great experience for players, kids and fans participating in the weekend — of being able to celebrate all the wonderment of hockey.”
Shea and Chris Campanelli held the first fundraiser in 2014, raising $7,500 for the Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association. The second annual event exploded, with alumni from the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks helping bring in $30,000.
In the third annual event last weekend at Howelsen Ice Arena — which included an auction party and concert at the Sheraton — representatives of the “Original Six” NHL teams joined to raise $70,000 in benefit of Steamboat youth hockey.
“I remember saying two years ago, ’We can do better than that.’ The event was successful, it was fun, it was exciting, but it was new. So we had a lot to learn,” Campanelli said. “Every year, there are some new guys. More Stanley Cup rings this year than we’ve seen so far. It’s been exciting. The overall goal at the end of the season, by having this party, is to create hockey awareness and celebrate the game of hockey.”
Much of the success of this year’s event stemmed from the involvement of the NHL Players' Association. Among other things, the organization donated 35 full sets of youth hockey equipment for the kids of Steamboat.
The relationship between the NHLPA and Steamboat youth hockey started from talks between Campanelli and Mathieu Schneider, a special assistant to the executive director of the NHLPA, who logged more than 1,200 games as a player and won the Stanley Cup as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
Campanelli and Schneider, as well as NHL alumnus Keith Carney, were high school teammates at the Mount Saint Charles Academy in Rhode Island. Schneider wasn’t able to attend the event, but with Carney’s help, was able to orchestrate a mass influx of NHL veterans to Steamboat.
“I was hoping that we’d be able to do a little bit more than we actually did this year, but from the sounds of everything, it turned out to be another great event for them,” Schneider said. “It seems like it just keeps gaining momentum every year. It’s exciting, from our standpoint. We are always looking at different ways where we can impact young kids and have them become a solid influence and get new kids playing the game.”
The some 200 young athletes involved with the Steamboat Youth Hockey program will benefit from the money raised. With the aid of money from previous fundraisers, Campanelli and Shea helped revamp the program in the fall, allowing kids the chance to get on the ice and try hockey free of charge.
Going forward, the goal is to continue to build the Steamboat Hockey Classic, as well as grow youth hockey in Steamboat, which has seen tremendous growth in just the past two years.
“These kids will be able to use this equipment for years to come,” Campanelli said. “We are just in a great position, and hockey is going full steam ahead in Steamboat, and we are really happy to be a part of it.”
And, for what it's worth, the NHL alumni can still play. In the skills competition, Jiri Fischer had the hardest shot at 101 miles per hour, witnessed by the 30 local youth on the ice for the event.