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A rink of their own: Hockey players find new home in Brandon

The rise of hockey in South Dakota is a positive development, with the addition of the Scheels IcePlex helping the Sioux Falls Youth Hockey Association grow steadily and boost the talent level of its competitive teams, the Sioux Falls Flyers.

But there was a downside to that growth for a group of longtime Flyers players, who were almost left out in the cold.

Sioux Falls has recently had two traveling varsity teams, with the city divided between east and west. This split has diluted the talent in Sioux Falls, and the Flyers haven’t won a state title since 2009.

The Flyers petitioned the South Dakota Amateur Hockey Association to eliminate the split and field just one varsity team, but part of the arrangement was that Sioux Falls can only have two JV teams, not three. That move left 18 players in Sioux Falls without a place to play.

“When they came out with the list of the varsity players and JV players, parents were all calling and saying there must be a mistake because my kid isn’t on the list,” said Gary LaFollette, whose grandson was one of the players affected.

Although Sioux Falls didn’t officially cut players, they eliminated the opportunity for players who’ve been on the team for 10-plus years to participate on a traveling squad. Those players were still given the opportunity to play at the IcePlex in a recreation league, a less competitive level comprised of players ages 13-18.

That option didn’t sit well with some parents, including Darci Miles, whose son, now a high school sophomore, has been a member of the Flyers since he was 5 but lost his JV position due to the change.

“What the Flyers did was really crappy,” said Miles, adding that some of the families affected helped raise funds to build the IcePlex. “At some level, the (Sioux Falls association) got away with this. They petitioned to remove the split in Sioux Falls.

“It’s comparable to having just one varsity football team from Sioux Falls instead of one from Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt. They removed those boundaries and got one powerhouse team. They wanted another banner on the wall, so they stepped on these boys to try to get it.”

Sioux Falls association officials insist their hands were tied when it came to the rules the state placed for this season.

“Because Sioux Falls is so large, there were a number of rules that were put into place to legislate parity,” said association president John Sievert. “The smallest associations are going to compete against the largest ones, and to make that equitable, the state passed rules to create a level playing field. No one felt worse about this than me. We were hoping to try and find an ideal solution, but unfortunately this is how it worked out.”

After they were notified that they were no longer part of a Flyers JV traveling team, players and parents were approached by the Brandon Valley Hockey Association. Brandon Valley has never had enough players to form a JV or varsity team, and the influx of available players prompted a partnership.

Just like that, a high school-aged version of the Brandon Ice Cats was born.

“They were very welcoming,” said Keegan LaFollette, a Tea Area High School senior and former Flyers player who joined the team. “Picking us up was pretty amazing, especially after we were cut. Many of us thought that we’d never play again.”

Of the 18 players removed from JV travel, six were seniors in high school. It’s been a difficult transition at times for a group that some onlookers have dismissed by as the “Sioux Falls Rejects,” but they’re embraced their underdog status.

“With high school kids, it seems like they don’t care about feelings at all,” said Brandon Valley coach John Weber, who has one son still playing for the Flyers and one now with the Ice Cats. “But that’s OK because it makes them play harder. They’ve definitely got a chip on their shoulder.”

The Ice Cats also have a very unique sheet of ice to call home.

Traveling down Highway 11 toward Brandon, McCarty Park is nestled into the hillside on the south end of Splitrock Boulevard. On the grounds of the park, a pristine hockey rink glistens, and the ice surface and boards may look familiar.

In 2011, the University of Michigan played host to Michigan State in the famed “Big Chill at the Big House” in front of 104,173 fans. The Wolverines won that historic game 5-0, and now the sheet of ice and boards are the home to the Ice Cats while Brandon raises funds to eventually build an indoor rink.

Warm temperatures this fall kept the Ice Cats off the outdoor ice at times, but they’re finding their stride now with 15 skaters and two goalies, earning their first victory of the season last weekend at home against Aberdeen.

“I told our kids that even though they didn’t make the Sioux Falls team, it doesn’t make a difference,” Weber said. “You’re not going to just give up. There’s no reason to give up on anything, especially a sport you love. I’d rather take losing season than having nothing at all.”

Weber said other teams from around the region such as Minneapolis, Albert Lea, Worthington, Marshall and Sioux City have contacted him about scheduling games against Brandon Valley because they want to play on the famed surface and relish the idea of playing outdoors. 

“The rink is such a cool place,” said Keegan LaFollette, a forward for the Ice Cats. “It’s a little hard to get used to playing outside because it’s such a different environment, but we’re thankful to have this chance.”

Article source: http://www.argusleader.com/story/sports/2017/12/05/rink-their-own-hockey-players-find-new-home-brandon/914613001/

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