Aspen Junior Hockey moves forward amid pandemic with new director Harlan Pratt
The kids are back on the ice and that’s about all Harlan Pratt can ask for at the moment. The new Aspen Junior Hockey executive director has had his hands full stepping into the role amid a pandemic, but somehow AJH is finding a way to keep skating forward.
“It would be nice to be in easier times, but we are fighting it,” Pratt said last week. “I want to see these kids have opportunities and being part of a sport is a big one for a lot of kids to learn. It provides outlets for them to learn how to work with others and you get a mixed bag of personalities and they have to learn that. That translates.”
Pratt was hired in June to replace Shaun Hathaway, who was let go after seven years in charge of AJH. A native of western Canada, Pratt had a long career playing professional hockey and spent time in various National Hockey League camps, although most of his playing days were spent in lower-level leagues and overseas.
He most recently worked with the Nashville Junior Predators organization. One of his brothers, Nolan Pratt, currently is an assistant coach with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.
Pratt moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in early July, nearly a month after Lewis Ice Arena had reopened to skaters after it was shutdown in March when the coronavirus pandemic first broke out. It’s been small step after small step from there to continue to find ways to get more and more kids on the ice as safely as possible.
“Regardless of where you are, it’s a unique time for everybody. I’d rather be here,” Pratt said. “People still want this opportunity to have some normalcy.”
The fall is an important time for AJH, notably for fundraising. The organization’s two biggest fundraisers — the Stirling Cup and Fall Faceoff — usually take place around this time, although the Stirling Cup was canceled this year because of the pandemic.
The Fall Faceoff, a multi-week series of tournaments held each October, is set to begin Thursday, although it’ll include only half the usual teams. No spectators will be allowed, but they hope to stream games live online through LiveBarn.
“It’s better than nothing and that’s why I’m very optimistic we are still moving ahead with it,” Pratt said of the Fall Faceoff. “I wouldn’t say a full green light, but it’s trending that we are in the right spot. Everyone is on board for it and the city seems to be supporting that we get the opportunity to do it in a smaller manner. But it’s happening. That’s the biggest thing.”
The older kids, mostly those in high school, will play this weekend, with the younger kids getting to play over the following two weekends, concluding on Halloween weekend. Normally the tournament would bring in teams from across the region, and in recent years it has brought in the Mexican women’s national team to compete. Because of the pandemic, however, this year’s field will likely stick to teams from within the state of Colorado.
For many of the local Roaring Fork Valley players, this will be their first time competing since March.
“It’s kind of one step at a time. Kids are getting on the ice,” Pratt said. “Being able to only be half, that’s already a big kick to us. It sucks. But at least it seems we are going to be able to do something and it’s definitely going to help. It’s one step.”
THE PREP LOOPHOLE
In order to get the high school kids on the ice well ahead of the season, AJH has created a boys’ 18U team this fall. This allows any prospective players who want to compete for Aspen High School this coming season to get on the ice without breaking any of the Colorado High School Activities Association’s rules.
The CHSAA hockey season, which runs in the winter and would normally get going in November, has been pushed back to a January start because of the pandemic-altered sports schedule. Most club teams on the Front Range have already had plenty of opportunity for training and competition, so the AJH 18U team will allow the Aspen players the chance to keep up.
Keith Howie was named the AHS hockey coach over the summer.
“It’s an opportunity to keep these kids on the ice and provide them that outlet and let’s see what we can get to,” Pratt said. “I skated with a lot of those kids in the summer and I keep trying to plan to get out with them. I’m trying to be a part of every team and every kid as much as I can. It’s just, I don’t have 24 duplicates of myself.”
GROWING GIRLS HOCKEY
In the future, Pratt would like to provide an opportunity for the boys to compete at the national level like the girls have in recent years. The AJH girls’ AA teams have been a consistent presence at national tournaments of late, beginning with the 14U team that competed in the 2017 USA Hockey National Championships in Michigan.
Led by a deep senior class, the 19U AA team was expected to have returned to the national tournament this past winter, but had its regional tournament ultimately canceled in March because of the pandemic.
“For the girls last year, that’s got to be hard, because you had a bunch of seniors that moved on and you only get so many opportunities to play for a national title,” Pratt said. “That’s another thing that is great about the program is that’s been established and continues to keep growing, the girls’ side of hockey.”
Pratt said that, as of now, he expects the AA girls to have a season and the opportunity to again compete for a national championship this winter. AJH is fielding both a 14U and 19U AA team for the girls. While the 19U team will be very young after losing a deep senior class, Pratt sees a lot of potential for the group in the coming years.
“You’ve got this younger generation and if they are committed to it, it could be awesome and I hope they get some success this year and kind of get to build off it and keep going,” Pratt said. “They don’t realize how close they are to getting scholarships and having these opportunities. It’s right there for them.”
FUTURE OF AJH
Amid an ongoing pandemic, Pratt hasn’t had much time to ponder the future of Aspen Junior Hockey. He’s mostly been trying to get programs started up again and keep it all afloat with limited fundraising opportunities.
But the most obvious goal for Pratt going forward will be to continue to find ways to get the younger kids involved in the sport, and this can include finding a way to make hockey part of the general physical education curriculum at the local schools.
“That’s obviously always the lifeline of the program,” Pratt said. “It would be great to see if we can start implementing those opportunities. Again, it opens up doors and maybe kids like it and want to keep doing it. The big grand picture would be we are back to normal and growing the program and developing kids. As our program grows, maybe we have more opportunity for them as far as level of competition.”