Midvalley’s miracle on ice
Sheldon Wolitski is funding a free program that’s gotten more than 400 kids involved in hockey at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel
Sheldon Wolitski had a dream to get maybe 100 midvalley kids interested in playing hockey through a special program he launched this winter at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel.
Instead, his Colorado Extreme program has been overwhelmingly successful with more than 400 kids ages eight and under enrolled — including 80 Latinos and 150 girls.
Six nights per week, Wolitski and his crew of employees and volunteers oversee an introductory skating program, then two hours of hockey practice, drills and scrimmages.
“We have kids who have never skated before and within a month they have a stick in their hands and they’re shooting pucks,” Wolitski said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Cami Doebler, 7, started skating last year and jumped into hockey at Crown Mountain this winter. She and her brother Henry, 8, attend four or five nights per week.
“I love it,” Cami said. “Sometimes we ski so we have to take a break from hockey.”
Their dad, Errol Doebler, is a coach in the program. As kids improve their skating, they get bumped into the hockey program, he said.
“This past week we’ve had several new faces in the hockey part. If that doesn’t say it’s a good introduction to the sport, I don’t know what does,” Doebler said.
Most of the funding for the program is on Wolitski’s dime. He bought the materials for an outdoor rink 115-by-55 feet. Crown Mountain Park’s board of directors provided the site. Wolitski installed an elaborate system of piping and hired a local resident — Dan Berry, aka “The Ice Man” — to build the foundation using a “chiller” that shoots glycol through the pipes.
“We had a goal of 100 kids,” Wolitski said. “We thought that would be great because we were comparing it to some of the other programs in Colorado. We were even questioning if it was too high. Then we hit 100 and we said, ‘OK, we need to get some more equipment,’ because the numbers started piling up. Then it was 200, then we hit 300.”
Wolitski provides bags that include helmets, jerseys, socks and pads. The skates are provided separately.
“All parents have to do is drop off their kids,” he said. “We size them up and they have full hockey gear ready to go. It’s rare that you get that.”
Many of the parents hang out on the sideline to watch their kids’ progress.
The program started with a bang when it launched in mid-November. It was a challenge to provide outfits for all participants.
“Fortunately the NHL stepped up,” Wolitski said, referring to the National Hockey League. “They donated 100 bags. I kicked in the other 300.”
Wolitski has invested roughly $400,000 so far in the program. That will grow by the time the season concludes at the end of March.
He’s passionate about getting kids interested in hockey. The sport was in his blood while growing up in Canada. He played Division II college hockey at the University of Alabama, Huntsville and was part of the team that won a national championship in 1995-96. After college, he founded a successful worker placement company called The Select Group. He remains the chairman of the board but has refocused on philanthropic endeavors such as Colorado Extreme.
“I’ve spent more time setting up this program over the last three months than I have in the last 10 years at my own business,” Wolitski said. “My wife is like, ‘I’ve never seen you work so hard.’ I’m like, ‘you know what, it’s not work.’”
He hasn’t balked at the investment. He views it as paying it forward.
“It’s a privilege for me to be able to do that. Someone did it for me when I was a kid,” he said. “Someone was able to build all these outdoor rinks in Canada. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. Somebody was generous enough to do that for me, so it’s kind of like passing on the torch.”
His experimental program caught the eye of NHL officials because of the big push in diversity and inclusion. They want to see if it is sustainable, Wolitski said.
Rocio Rojas Eroh, a resident of Blue Lake, enrolled her 5-year-old son Liam in the program.
“He loves it. It’s been great for us to have something in the downvalley area that’s available for everyone and free,” Rojas Eroh said.
She first learned about Colorado Extreme through an email from school. That led her to the program’s website.
“I read what they were about and the part that got me was the inclusion and how they wanted to diversify the whole sport,” Rojas Eroh said.
Her son entered the Learn to Skate program and immediately wanted to improve. He attends two or three nights per week and has advanced into participation in hockey.
Young Latino kids and girls have role models to look up to in the program. The coaching staff includes one Latino and two women, all former college hockey players. Coach Carlos Ross skated while growing up in New York City and played college hockey. He was used to being “the only Mexican playing hockey out there.”
He believes there is a benefit to having Roaring Fork Valley Latinos interacting with a Spanish-speaking coach.
“I just hope I can be a role model for them out on the ice,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing to get a whole community that I know very well, that I come from, to get them involved in a sport that I really love.”
The ice rink and Wolitski’s program have expanded a high-level of activity at Crown Mountain Park into winter, formerly a quiet time. There are public skate hours during the daytime every week. Times fluctuate due to weather, rentals and programming. The hours get posted each Monday at crownmtn.org.
“This program Colorado Extreme is running is the best coached program we have ever seen in the valley,” said Crown Mountain Park executive director Becky Wagner. “It is really incredible and every child gets to play; no child gets left behind.
“They are teaching them hockey but most importantly HEART (Hustle, Effort, Attitude, Respect and Team),” she added.
The program gives a nightly HEART trophy to a participant. Wolitski said a parent once texted him a photo of her child sleeping with the trophy.
Luke Hoover shows heart and dedication at the rink several days per week. He’s captured Wolitski’s attention because Luke regularly rides his bicycle over to Crown Mountain Park in his hockey gear from his home in Sopris Village, a nearby subdivision. Luke, 9, said he regularly meets friends at the rink during open ice time. Sometimes he arrives first and shovels off snow. It’s been great to have the rink, he said, because it has increased his time on ice.
Galen Hoover, Luke’s mom, said the midvalley is fortunate to have such a great facility. She appreciates that she doesn’t have to spend as much time driving to other towns to get Luke on the ice.
She said Saturday evenings at the rink are a special treat. Parents bring potluck dishes and beverages and there’s always music playing.
“It’s created community,” she said.
That’s music to Wolitski’s ear.
“We’ve been able to bring everybody together from all over midvalley and create a community feel,” he said.
That vibe is extended to operations, with parents helping out with everything from fitting kids in gear to assembling the rink.
“The survival of the program is the parents and volunteers. It has to be that way.” Wolitski said. “We want to keep this free as long as we can.”