Duluth Amateur Hockey Association Executive Director Jason Watt, on the state of youth hockey in Duluth: “I do think that hockey continues to be a huge part of the fabric of Duluth. We’re not dying at all, but there’s room for improvement. Our numbers are going up slightly, which is great, and we’re doing very well out East. We need to continue to look at ways to engage kids playing out West. We’ve been sticking around the 750 mark — and this year we’re at 791, for both boys and girls. That’s fantastic, that’s growth. We’d like to get to 800, then to 850 and to keep growing. We’ve got room to grow on the West side of Duluth and in our girls’ program. Obviously, we’d like to continue to add more kids out East. I do think there’s misconceptions about the expense of the sport. It’s affordable to play up through 10 years-old, and once you get into high school it’s again very affordable. When you get into the traveling team levels, the four years of pee wees and bantams, the costs can spike a little bit, and those are the areas we’re working on to help to lower the costs. We are very unique because we have the sub-associations under the DAHA umbrella — 10-sub associations, seven outdoor rinks, and then you have Duluth East, Duluth Denfeld and the Icebreakers girls’ program.”
Watt, on DAHA’s continuing efforts to keep youth hockey affordable: “This is the challenge. I will say that our parent volunteer group does more than any other volunteer group in the city, simply because we maintain the outdoor rinks. The parents flood the rinks, take care of them, and even clean the warming shacks. The amount of volunteer hours that goes into running these grassroots programs around the city, including taking care of the pleasure rinks, is an enormous amount of work. Our parents do it all, and I tip my hat to them. Most of the associations have their own Zambonis, they fundraise to build the rinks and keep them maintained. We get this cold weather and then we’ll hit the mid-30’s – and it’s tough to keep moral up sometimes at the outdoor rinks. But we need that ice, otherwise we’d have a shortage of it.”
Watt, on the economic impact of Duluth youth hockey weekend tournaments: “Once Bentleyville closes, and before the tourism season kicks in again, the impact is great. The Labovitz School of Economics conducted an impact study of our program a couple of years ago, and the impact is quite substantial. Depending on how you want to read that report, it can be close to $10 million per season, and that doesn’t include the high schools or UMD. We’re a huge economic component in our community, particularly this time of year in January, February and the middle of March. We had one of the biggest girls’ hockey tournaments in the nation here last weekend, the Icebreaker, with 64 teams. We also host the annual Spirit of Duluth, an iconic tournament that’s been here forever. And, we’ve got a big junior gold tournament coming here soon. There’s a youth hockey tournament every weekend, so the hotels and restaurants are taking in hockey players and their parents. We think we’re a great partner with the city of Duluth and we want to keep it that way.”
Watt, on the state of the DAHA facilities: “We’re fortunate to have this beautiful Essentia Duluth Heritage Center, but we do need more ice. Fryberger (Arena) does pose challenges. It’s a $40,000 utility bill for us every year. We also pledge $20,000 to the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center every year, before we begin our first practices. Youth hockey has challenges that some of the other sports don’t. We’re always looking for ways to overcome this. Fryberger, it serves its purpose, it’s got its charm, but it’s definitely a tired building that needs some help.”
Watt, on his brief DAHA tenure: “I’m in my third year. Duluth hockey has been here for a long time, and it will continue to be here long after I’m gone. In some ways, the job as the director is to throw a log on the fire and not let the fire burn out. On the other hand, there are some things we want to do. We’re committed to growing the game. But how do we best accomplish this? We’re exploring grassroots programs that we haven’t implemented yet, which we’re looking to get to this off-season, particularly out West. Floor hockey type things, getting kids excited for our great sport of hockey.”
A small group of Duluth Cathedral High School hockey alumni gathered Tuesday night to dedicate a photo arch honoring the Hilltoppers’ storied program at Essentia Duluth Heritage Center. Former Duluth Cathedral great Kevin Hoene spoke at the event, which was held prior to the Duluth Marshall-Duluth Denfeld high school boys game. Current players from both teams lined up on the ice for the ceremony.