Taos Youth Hockey is gearing up for a comeback beginning in early November, giving young athletes the chance to train and compete in hockey this winter. The League is looking to recover from last year's "lost year" due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and win back athletes and volunteers to help keep hockey alive in Taos.
"Right now, we're hoping to get the varsity program back up and running," said Charlie Raskovics, a volunteer coach who has been with the organization since its start in the mid 80s.
The club trains Taos Coyotes (aged 3-14), and Taos Ice Tigers (Taos High School athletes). Raskovics said, in a typical year, around 100 kids would train with the group.
"Having missed an entire year, we have no idea where we stand. But whatever I can do? Well, I'll be there to do it," he said.
Raskovics grew up playing hockey in Canada. When he moved to Taos, he'd get his friends to play street hockey - with a tennis ball instead of a puck, and asphalt instead of ice.
He said one day the town received 400 pairs of ice skates from Canada.
Albuquerque and Los Alamos had hockey rinks in the 70s, but in Taos, nothing like that existed. The fire department used to fill a divot in the parking lot in Kit Carson Park that would freeze and become a short-term rink, but it was never big enough for competition.
"So I volunteered to figure out a way to make it somewhere else," said Raskovics, who worked in guest service maintenance at St. Bernard Condominiums for 30 years, until they shut down last year.
"I walked the park, and I found an open area that was not being used. It was about the right size - the size of an NHL rink," he said. (A National Hockey League rink is 200 by 85 feet.)
Raskovics borrowed ideas from other natural rinks he'd seen in Los Alamos and Albuquerque. "The first year, we had ice, but it only lasted on one half of the surface because of the sun," he said. They devised a shade-cloth to keep the sun off, and they were up and running.
"Those same guys that I had got playing ball hockey?" he said. "I convinced them that ice hockey was even better."
Raskovics said once they had the rink operational "we realized that we had to have a kids' program." But the town would not allow them to have ice-skating for kids unless they were affiliated with USA Hockey. "So we became USA Hockey," he said.
That's the governing body for organized ice hockey in the United States, and is recognized by the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. It is also a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
USA Hockey divides leagues across 12 geographical regions and by age bracket: 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18-year-olds. Age groups used to have names like Mite, Squirt, Peewee and Bantam, but those were officially dropped in 2016.
Taos High School has a junior varsity and varsity hockey team, which are part of the New Mexico Interscholastic Hockey League and include teams from New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
Both teams now practice and compete at the Taos Youth and Family Center located at 407 Paseo del Cañon East.
Like a family
Ysidro Gravelle, a 2019 Taos High School graduate, said he got into hockey as soon as he was able to because his older brother played goalie.
Gravelle played goalie too, but soon switched to forward: left-wing. "I loved scoring goals. That became my thing," he said.
He played with the Taos Coyotes as a kid, and then joined the Ice Tigers when he got to high school. He also played for the traveling teams New Mexico Ice Wolves and New Mexico Road Runners, both based in Albuquerque.
"It's like a brotherhood - like a family. You've got to be there for each other all the time," said Gravelle. "I love hockey."
Never giving up
John Henderson is a Taos High School history teacher who got involved with Taos Youth Hockey in 1994. He grew up on the east coast playing ice hockey, and coached his son Laughlen when he joined the league in Taos.
Henderson said he's seen a shift towards a more diverse group of players. "My son's team had female players and kids from the Pueblo and all sorts of different groups. And it's just a great joy to watch these kids come to the rink. It's cold. The gear is funny," said Henderson. "But they have smiles on their faces."
He said the league has been successful "in terms of wins and state championships, but really, it's just bringing kids together in this community to learn about life - about staying positive and supporting your teammates and never giving up. Those are the things that we always talk about."