Amid the din of skates, celebratory sticks banging the boards and cheering parents at the Lewis Ice Arena on Friday, Tim Ware took a few minutes to talk about how far Aspen Junior Hockey’s Fall Face Off Tournament has come.
Now in its 20th year, the event draws hundreds of players and their families to the upper valley, providing a financial punch in the middle of off-season.
This weekend, the first of three for the tournament, 32 teams will take to the rinks at the Lewis Ice Arena in the Aspen Recreation Center (ARC) and the Aspen Ice Garden.
Ware, the Fall Face Off’s co-organizer with Aspen Junior Hockey’s Jackie Ayers, noted that each team has 15 players or so who have traveled to Aspen with their parents and perhaps siblings.
Coming from Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas and around Colorado, they stay in hotels, dine at restaurants and also spend money at the ARC between games. All told, the event’s three weekends this month and next add an estimated $1.7 million to the local economy during the shoulder season, Ware said, citing figures from the city of Aspen’s special events department. (Ware is the city’s parking director.)
“It brings a big bunch to town, and it’s a lot of work by a lot of people,” he said.
That’s a far cry from 1993, the Face Off’s first year, when only 13 teams could be hosted at the ice garden. This year, nearly as many teams were turned away because the event is at capacity.
When the ARC rink opened in 2003, Ware said Aspen Junior Hockey approached the city with a proposition.
“They said, ‘We think we can fill both of these rinks nonstop if you give them to us,’” he said near the scorer’s table, as the Aspen Leafs, the 12-and-under club team, widened its lead en route to a 4-2 win over Denver Country Club. “And sure enough, bingo. It’s been that way since day one.”
He said that games today will start at 6:30 a.m. and likely last until 12:30 a.m. Sunday.
Bud Norris and Kelly Klein started the tournament as a way to give club teams a few games before their regular seasons begin. Organizers had no idea it would become so “monstrous,” Ware said.
Slots for the Face Off are usually posted in July, and “20 teams will sign up the day it’s posted,” he said.
Writing the schedule is the hardest part, according to Ware.
“You can’t make everyone happy, and some teams are going to play at 6:30” in the morning, he said.
Steve Jorgensen of Ogden, Utah, drove his family eight hours to Aspen. His son, Riley, was playing in the Squirt level with the Ogden Junior Mustangs.
“We were going to go to Las Vegas, and then this one was combined with the Squirts and the Pee Wees,” he said. “That’s partly why we came.”
While a long haul, he said he was enjoying the scenery during their first time in Aspen.
Ware grew up in Alaska playing hockey and raised a child who played in Aspen Junior Hockey. He knows well the extended travel that can be involved in youth sports for athletes and parents alike.
As he succinctly put it, “Parents are crazy.”
But it’s that kind of devotion that has helped put Aspen on the map for hockey clubs in the West.
“I’m pretty proud of this,” Ware said.