Friday, November 2, 2012

Call it hockey with a heart

Sun Valley Suns players enjoy volunteering


Wearing his Suns swag, young Jayden Bennett is assisted by Suns forward Bryan O’Connell, left, and Cody Proctor during a “Beat the Sun” shooting attempt at the second intermission of a home game last December. The weekend games against McCall raised money for Camp Rainbow Gold. Photo by Roland Lane

Chances are you’ve seen the Sun Valley Suns men’s hockey team in its element—the local players stealing the puck from an opponent, defending the goal or scoring a hat trick on a Friday or Saturday night game.

With the team’s 37th season fast approaching, fans can be certain of another action-packed year. Some highlights include match-ups with the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Moose and a Boxing Day face-off with the Future Suns—games that are always crowd favorites.

Fans, both new and old, are in for some great hockey in 2012-13, according to Suns co-captain Jon Duval.

“We’ve been working out at High Altitude Fitness all fall and we started skating together much earlier than usual,” Duval said. “The level of play should be high and we have a lot of good teams on the roster.”

In addition to getting into game shape, Suns players have been busy around town, quietly assuming another role—that of volunteer. The Suns, like all hockey players, have a reputation for getting into it in the corners and enjoying a few beers after a game, but they’re also very civic-minded.

Being active in the community has been a part of the Suns’ mission almost since the team’s inception. In the past year, Suns players have:

( Skated with Camp Rainbow Gold campers who are battling cancer.

( Done “cleanup” duty at the Wagon Days Parade.

( Performed a raucous “Slapshot”-inspired striptease in the Battle of the Blades benefit for the Sun Valley Figure Skating Club.

( Taught local students how to skate as part of both the Park Penguins and Hemingway Elementary skating programs.

( Manned one of the most popular aid stations, as they do every year, during February’s Boulder Mountain Ski Tour.

They do all of this for free.

According to Suns right wing Bryan O’Connell, better known as O.C., Suns players really enjoy being a part of the community, especially working with kids.

O.C., 25 and still new to town, shows up for just about everything the Suns do outside of the rink. Recently, he helped fit young players with gear at Sturtevants in Ketchum for the Sun Valley Youth Hockey appreciation day.

“It’s really important to connect with the young players in a town where there’s a lot of youth hockey,” he said as he helped tape the hockey stick of a Mitey Mite player. “We really enjoy working with the kids and inspiring them.”

To that end, he and many teammates also recently hosted and coached a three-day, pre-season camp for young players on Sun Valley ice.

Last winter, members of the Suns came out for four consecutive weeks to help students from Hemingway Elementary hone their skating skills and pursue their dreams. This program, offered for the first time as an alternative to the school’s ski afternoons, was a huge hit.

Coaches from the Sun Valley Figure Skating Club provided free instruction in skating with a toe pick, while members of the Suns helped aspiring hockey skaters. They not only taught kids some edge control and stick handling skills, they also gave out Suns jerseys and tickets to their games.

By all accounts, the children who participated were veritable rock stars back in the hallways at school, sporting the team colors. Some may become hockey players. Some may not, but they will all likely never forget the time they spent with the Suns.

The broader community is also important to O.C. and his teammates. This became crystal clear to him two years ago when he and a young camper from Camp Rainbow Gold changed each other’s lives.

Every summer, campers are brought to the outdoor Sun Valley ice rink to enjoy a morning on the ice. Many are too weak to skate, so they are raced around on special adaptive sleds. Others make their way in wide circles with the help or company of other skaters.

The Suns come out big for this event every year. And this opportunity permanently changed O.C.’s perspective.

“I was skating with a camper, Jayden, and we got along so well,” O.C. said. “He was the bravest kid I have ever met.”

The camper made such an impression on O.C. that he let Jayden cut his long, blonde, Samson-like locks, all to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

To Duval, such opportunities to volunteer and help are a direct result of the Suns’ involvement in countless aspects of the community.

“The team is made up of an eclectic group of guys who actually live here,” Duval said. “Players work in the service industry, for local nonprofits—we work all over the valley. Because of this, everyone is really involved in the daily life of this community. That’s how we find out about different events and needs.

“Someone who works with the Parks Department gets us involved with Atkinson Park programs. Another player might have a friend who is a figure skater so we work with Hemingway and Battle of the Blades. I have no idea how the Wagon Days thing came up, but it’s always fun.

“Everyone is willing to give time and give back because we get a lot from this community.”


Volunteer spirit goes way back

The Suns have always been heavily involved with more than just hockey, according to Glenn Hunter of Ketchum.

Hunter played with the Suns from the late 1970s to the early 1990s and has been a strong supporter ever since. He has helped coordinate and has witnessed the impact that the team and players have had on the valley.

It was originally Hunter’s idea to feature promotional nights when the Suns give money to local organizations focused on children and children’s sports. Decades later, these Benefit Nights continue and are an integral part of the Suns’ mission.

“The Suns’ Benefit Nights have evolved over the years, but are an important part of what we do,” said Dave Hutchinson, a former team member, current board member and longtime supporter.

“We started a nonprofit, the Suns Foundation, that raises money inside and outside the community so we can contribute in a meaningful way to the groups that come in, and help sell tickets and merchandise during Suns games,” Hutchinson said.

At the end of each weekend, the partner organization is given cash to put toward its own budget or program needs.

There are 10 or 11 groups each season that benefit financially from the support of the Suns Foundation. These Benefit Nights also boost the Suns because the featured organizations attract new people who might otherwise not attend a hockey game.

The spirit of volunteerism and giving back is something tacitly passed along to each new group of players.

“Each ‘generation’ of Suns inherits responsibility for keeping things going, for keeping ties to the community strong,” said Hutchinson. “All the volunteering the Suns do is internal—they engender the spirit of donating their time. The older guys pass this ethic along to the younger guys and the tradition continues.”

With the 2012-13 season-opening puck set to drop on Friday, Dec. 7, with the renewal of the long Suns-Moose rivalry at Jackson Hole, the long and storied story of the Suns continues on and off the ice.

The family-friendly and affordable games take place most Friday and Saturday nights during winter at the Sun Valley Indoor Ice Rink. A Suns fundraiser planned for Dec. 13 at Whiskey Jacques’ in Ketchum will feature a silent auction and raffle.

Next time you see a Suns player working with kids around town or cleaning up behind the horses at Wagon Days, give him a shout out. They’re not looking for recognition, but they deserve some.




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