Houston Flyers players take a water break Oct. 5 during some of the season's first skating drills at Claude Parish Arena. This Atom team is one of two Atom-division teams playing in Houston's minor league this year.

Volunteers keep the Houston Flyers flying

You can tell Len Potvin's place is a hockey house.

You can tell Len Potvin’s place is a hockey house.

A sheet of ice white plastic lies on the driveway outside, marked up by hundreds of slap-shots fired at the cut-out goalie looking undefended in the net behind it.

“Houston is a hockey town for sure,” says Potvin.

A former minor leaguer himself, Potvin coached his son’s teams for years before he started out as vice-president and then president of the Houston Flyers.

Over at Claude Parish arena, Flyers are already skating circles around their coaches—B.C.’s minor hockey league saw its first official face-offs last weekend.

Potvin said joining Houston’s league executive meant he could stay involved in hockey and give his son a chance to play under other coaches.

“I wanted to step back and let him do his thing,” he said.

Potvin’s daughter also plays in the league—the only girl on her team.

“She likes it that way. She doesn’t like any other girl competition,” he said, laughing.

The Houston Flyers roster includes boys and girls teams for kids ages 5 to 17. They play season games in the Omineca league, travelling from Fort St. James to Vanderhoof, and can play tournaments as far as Prince Rupert.

Behind all the road trips and early-morning practices are committed parents, coaches and a team of six volunteers on the league executive.

As president, Potvin meets with people across the northern B.C. to go over rule changes.

One good change came before his time—B.C.’s province-wide finals now run on a tiered system, so that Houston competes against towns of a similar size.

That has led to a way more competitive final, he said. Houston’s Midget team came second in 2010, and beat the winning team last year even though they didn’t place.

While hockey can get pricey, Potvin said Houston hockey parents get a better deal than most places because they

Closer to home, Potvin said that although minor hockey can get pricey, Houston hockey parents get a better deal than most.

That’s because every parent with a child on the Houston Flyers volunteers at least ten hours at the Claude Parish concession stand.

“You listen to other towns and what they have to do to keep minor hockey going and our concession is kind of a gem,” he said.

Parents can register first-time player in Houston for just $75. Kids normally start at age five, said Potvin, but they will take players as young as four if they’re steady on their skates.

From initiation to midget level, the fees range from $135 to $310 in Houston. In Terrace, those same fees start at$330 and run as high as $475.

The fees pay for tournaments, referees and ice time for the October to March season.

Hockey equipment can get expensive, but Potin said it doesn’t have to be. He said he’s found great equipment in thrift stores and the team also runs an annual gear-swap.

“You don’t need brand-new gear,” he said. “Brand new gear doesn’t feel good—throw on some ratty gear and it feels great.”

Blaine Silbernagel agrees.

Silbernagel, who serves as Houston’s league secretary, also has a clear answer why people should get involved in minor hockey.

“Because it’s Canada’s sport!” he said, laughing.”I love it and my kid loves it,” he added. “If my son didn’t love doing it, I wouldn’t have him in there.”

Hockey is also one of the more popular winter sports that Houston kids can play right in town, he said.

“They just want to get out on the ice, skate around, shoot the puck, score some goals and have fun.”

Like Potvin, Silbernagel coached for several years. He is still an assistant coach this year, but thinks his skills are best used in managing the league. Along with his duties as secretary, Silbernagel runs the league’s web site and new Facebook page.

“I’m a good pylon mover,” he joked. “We’re lucky that we have so many awesome coaches.”

Shane Brienen is certainly one local coach who fits that bill.

Brienen is lacing up to coach one of Houston’s two Atom teams this year—his 15th year coaching minor league hockey. Brienen started coaching to stay involved in hockey after an unlucky injury kept him out of the Juniors.

Brienen also coached the Houston Luckies men’s team for eight seasons.

Early on, Brienen said he thought coaching kids’ hockey would be easier than handling older players. But after all his time behind the bench, he’s found the opposite is true.

With young players, he said, coaches have to break down every skill into smaller steps—it isn’t as simple as showing a move and having the team copy it.

“I think it’s all fun,” he added. “Little kids are always great because they’re so excited, and the older kids because it gets competitive. There’s always something good about it.”

Any parents who want to help out with the league can get more information at houstonminorhockey.com.