Walk into Centerpoint Medical Center Community Ice on any week day, and you might just see a pickup hockey game unfold.
As pucks skid across the ice at the Independence facility and players bring out chairs, tires and cones for drills, some wear jerseys inscribed with their last name, while others opt for everyday sweatshirts. Some play so hard that they fall down, commanding stares, yet others weave across the rink with a seeming ease. Some yell. On the other hand, some remain tight-lipped and focused.
According to Kansas City Mavericks player Nate Widman, this stick-and-puck hockey scene reflects “like-minded people trying to be the best we can at any level.” Alongside Widman, players from junior hockey leagues and college teams strive to improve and to benefit from the pro’s mentorship.
For most of them, hockey has been a part of their lives since early childhood. Widman began playing at the age of 7. Junior hockey players Grant Smith and Clark Kerner started at 4, while Phil Heisse -- who will soon transition to college play at Southern New Hampshire University -- took to the rink at 2.
“My dad played all through high school,” Heisse said of his introduction to the sport. “It felt like right he put skates on me right when I was born.”
Kerner remembers a similar family pull. He recalled watching the Chicago Blackhawks with his father as a child, and getting “many, many sticks” as Christmas gifts from relatives.
Years later, when Kerner moved to the area and away from all his friends at the age of 14, hockey again proved a way to build relationships. All the friends he has now he met through hockey.
“I’ve created a lifelong brotherhood,” Kerner said.
Heisse agrees, noting that competitions and travel have resulted in the young men forming bonds throughout the country. Almost all count these out-of-town tournaments as among their favorite hockey memories, thanks to crowds of thousands.
“Many people haven’t seen a hockey game live, and seeing it on TV is nothing like seeing it in person,” Smith said of these roaring audiences. “My friends tell me that they can’t see the puck on TV … when you get to the game, it’s so fast and so high skill. It’s such a competitive game.”
According to Widman, the renewed interest and investment in Independence hockey makes the city an ideal place for this competition to thrive. After the dissolution of several top-tier teams and the shutdown of another area hockey facility, he recalls talent drifting away in favor of cities with more established programs.
Now, Widman is entering his second year with the Mavericks, allowing him to stay in a city with family connections that has long served as a second home. Widman’s grandpa lived here throughout his entire life, and his sister and parents also relocated to the area. As he continues his own career, he also considers and serves as a mentor for the future of Independence hockey.
“People no longer have to move to play,” Widman said. “Kids can stay here, develop here and hockey will continue to grow.”
IF YOU GO
Stick and puck hockey occurs weekdays at Centerpoint Medical Center Community Ice, at 19100 E. Valley View Parkway. A schedule of various times can be found online at centerpointcommunityice.com. The cost is $12 for city residents, who must wear a helmet, gloves and skates to participate.