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Hockey finds a home

Prep hockey skates into Rogue Valley in form of three-team league at The RRRink

Robert Hayward's hockey history mirrors that of the Rogue Valley's latest venture into the sport.

Much like the newly founded high school-level league, Hayward and his family started on the bottom floor.

The Crater High sophomore skated into hockey without much knowledge of the sport at a young age and brought his mother, Lisa, and later his sister, Madison, into the fold.

We played some in Idaho when I was younger, says Robert Hayward. We played on the ponds when they were frozen, but we couldn't play for long because the ice might melt. We didn't have any equipment either.

— When the Haywards moved to Central Point in 1996 from St. Anthony, a town in eastern Idaho, hockey was the last thing on their minds.

Robert's father, Bruce, had an inoperable brain tumor, and the family came to the Rogue Valley with the knowledge his passing was eminent.

Shortly after the move in 1996, Bruce Hayward succumbed, leaving Lisa with two kids in tow.

My son was a very angry young man after his father passed away, says Lisa Hayward, who had ties to the state after graduating from the University of Oregon. Soon after The RRRink was built (in 1999), he said he wanted to play hockey. I was afraid of having an angry kid playing an angry game, but he became involved and (hockey) taught him self-discipline and gave him some self-confidence. It's the best thing he's ever done.

Despite little prior experience in hockey, Lisa Hayward wanted to jump headfirst into the sport that her son had become enamored with. She started from scratch, learning the rules for officiating, then joining the Oregon State Hockey Association board and becoming a coach.

Her daughter Madison, now 14, leaned more toward figure skating, but she eventually fell under hockey's spell.

I like the competition (hockey has to offer), says Madison. I like figure skating and I like to be out on the ice, but being able to get out and play with other people is more fun.

Robert Hayward, now 15, and several other area youth lost their sport recently, however, when the Rogue Valley Youth Hockey Association midget-level Stars team failed to attract enough players and folded.

When the hockey season took an unexpected hiatus, Lisa Hayward and a handful of others sprang into action.

The idea for high school-level hockey had been kicked around for the past five years by parents and members of the RVYHA board, but the thought didn't really become serious until the last two years. After the midget team never materialized, the other board members acted.

I always said the problem with hockey in our area was the closest team was in Eugene, says Lisa Hayward, adding that cost also made it hard for some kids to participate. As it becomes more affordable, then more kids will have access to these programs.

During the spring of last year, RVYHA president Noel Littlefield and a group of board members approached athletic directors from schools in the area with the idea, and, with a major hand from The RRRink, high school hockey was born in Southern Oregon.

Not every school was ready to commit, and the Oregon School Activities Association doesn't recognize hockey as an official prep sport yet. There is no state-level championship for high school hockey, and the teams that do currently exist (most are in the Portland area) play at club level.

For now, a three-team league of Crater, Ashland and South Medford (a combination of both Medford high schools) is playing a six-game schedule that runs through March. The regular season is capped off by a round-robin tournament that crowns a champion.

Klamath Falls may soon join the mix in the near future, along with a couple of teams potentially from Grants Pass or Rogue River next season. South Medford also may split into North-South teams if the turnout allows.

The league has a no-checking rule, which allows some of the newcomers to the sport the opportunity to fine-tune remedial aspects of their game without their progress being impeded.

Michael Mahlstadt, manager of The RRRink and Ashland's coach, inherited most of the knowledgeable players from the RVYHA teams, while Crater and South garnered some of the least-experienced.

The first practice we had, I had to go over some of the basic rules, says Lisa Hayward. Some of the kids didn't even know how to skate.

One of those, Zack Holcomb, had wanted to give hockey a go for several years, but only recently found the time when the Crater team formed.

I love it, says Holcomb, a freshman who also plays football and wrestles. I like the skating and the stick handling. I need a little work on back-pedaling. I've had a few falls trying to get that down.

South coach Erich Weber and his wife Meredith also played a big part in the league's inception.

We said, 'Okay, are we willing to put out money that we may not get back? says Meredith Weber. Most of us (parents) knew it was important to continue the program. We knew high school hockey would help attract more kids.

Erich Weber also coaches the Stars' bantam team. His sons Patrick, a sophomore at South, and Kevin, a St. Mary's freshman, both participate on the Panthers' high school squad.

The money issue has been helped by some corporate sponsors and The RRRink, which has subsidized a lot of the ice time for practices, games and also provided discounts on equipment.

The RRRink thinks of it as a win-win situation, says Mahlstadt, who kick-started the in-house hockey programs at The RRRink three years ago. We try and make the ice time more affordable for the kids, and I think it'll get them more excited about hockey.

The surge in interest is encouraging to all those involved, but Robert Hayward, like others in the league, sees it as an opportunity to further his career after graduation.

Hayward wants to attend the Air Force Academy after high school, where he hopes to continue his playing days.

I just like being out there, says Hayward, who also plays soccer. I think I'll be involved in hockey for a long time. (The high school league) gives other people a chance to play. Maybe they'll enjoy it as much as I do.

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4480 or e-mail .