January’s Sunday mornings are especially quiet in this once-famous gold camp, ghostly even, with dirt streets empty and dusty Victorian storefronts closed, idle as the splintered A-frames locals call gallows.
But then there’s a crack in the air. The slap of a hockey stick. The swooshing of skates on ice.
A dog barks. Stanley, the black Labrador sharing the name of the sport’s ultimate prize, plays fetch with a puck tossed by players on the bench waiting to check in.
Nearly 40 men and women, young and old, have suited up for another Sunday morning that belongs to the Victor Penguins.
The scene recalls a movie about another remote town’s resident skaters.
“Like ‘Mystery, Alaska,’” Penguin Jeff Ridlen says, referring to the 1999 comedy. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere playing hockey together.”
In the high country west of Colorado Springs, the group’s home is a ramshackle rink beside a hill. A wooden sculpture of Brian Hayes stands guard, complete with the 78-year-old’s bushy white mustache. On the ice now, the frozen sweat clings above Brian’s lip.
“This is everything to Victor,” he says, breathing hard during a break. “I mean, this is the only thing happening in the wintertime.”
This is Brian’s Park, the sign beside the sculpture announces. He’s known by several names: “The Glide” or the “Emperor Penguin.”
Or “the Real Penguin,” as Bob Johnson proclaimed him.
The Stanley Cup-winning former head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins — also the former Team USA coach based in the Springs — visited the Victor Penguins in their early years. It was 1990. It was just Brian Hayes and Gary Horton, the fellow father and mining colleague, and their sons and other kids in town.
Johnson and his national players came for the inaugural Victor Cup. The friendly, local tournament turned 30 this weekend.
“Ten-to-one,” Brian’s son, Tim, recalled the first game’s score.
He’s in his 40s now, looking at his toddler self with those pros in the photo kept in the cabin that serves as the wood-heated clubhouse. The following November, Johnson suffered a brain aneurysm, was diagnosed with cancer, and, at the height of his career, died at the age of 60.
The Penguins played on, the original members now commemorated by nameplates in the clubhouse.
There’s “The Glide,” for Brian Hayes’s speed that age can’t slow. And Ron “The Door” Shutts, for his prowess in the goal box, and Art “The Zipper” Price, for stitches he got across his forehead.
And there’s a nameplate for Gay Heurteaun, Gary Horton’s made-up French- Canadian name. There’s also an award for him: A plaque adorned with his broken pair of glasses, the Broken Spectacles Award, “for courage in the face of danger (or just being stupid!).”
Hockey here started with Gary, who gave his two sons, J.D. and Caleb, skates for Christmas in 1985. Atop a hill, water from a fire hydrant poured down, creating a pond for them to skate on when it froze.
Hockey seemed like a good idea to Brian, too, having played in his Minnesota childhood, his mom running the garden hose on wintry days. Soon enough, like Gary, he drove across Victor Pass to Goodwill to buy skates for Tim.
The five of them shot into a makeshift goal of PVC pipe and chicken wire. Some 2-by-6 wood planks were made into boards. And at night, if the moon wasn’t bright enough, the streetlight from the alley illuminated their play.
It was “monumental,” J.D. says.
“It was the only thing,” Tim says.
“It was this or jail,” says Gary, prone to a miner’s dry humor.
Jody Turner’s three kids were among those who joined the group. She’d yell for them to come home for dinner, and they’d refuse. “I had to come down and cook to make sure they’d eat,” she says.
And that’s what she’s doing now as the game goes on, the designated team mom in her Victor Penguins T-shirt, flipping hot dogs on the grill. Hot dogs and beer: the Sunday tradition. Not just for the players, but for anyone in town needing a meal.
Decades later, one of Turner’s kids is still playing, as is her brother, “and the rest are just my people,” she says.
“It matters. Hockey matters,” she continues. “It meant so much to the kids then and it still does today.”
It can seem like the kids never grew up, like the adults then are kids on ice now. Just watch Brian Hayes, gliding fast with the number nine on his back, worn by his hero, Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe. Or watch Art “Zipper” Price, with the stitches that only made him love the game more.
“It’s the thing that keeps me young,” he says. “It’s the frozen fountain of youth.”
The rink he knew in the ‘90s has improved. Hundreds of thousands of dollars from Great Outdoors Colorado paid for the curtains overhead — better than the bubble wrap the Penguins once used to keep the ice from melting. And now, rather than the alley streetlight, they play Wednesday nights under LED lights.
The town provides the water and electricity while the club does the upkeep. Brian is seen just about every day on the Zamboni, grooming the ice. The “new” machine is from 1986, while the first is from 1971, serial No. 989, refusing to die.
There’s a timeless feel here that makes Karen Zietlowe think back to her hockey youth in Minnesota. She plays pickup in the Springs, too, but says there’s nothing like Victor.
“There’s a sense of family,” she says. “It really is a family.”
They celebrate. They commiserate. They mourn lost members, including Stu, who had a heart attack after one game.
The deaths “really suck,” Zietlowe says. “But I know I can come here and mention Stu’s name, and everybody here knows who I’m talking about. They’ll give me a hug if I say Stu.”
Another was “Rusty” Ballenger, whose 24-year-old son, Joel, came to play today. He always came with his dad.
But in 2017 Joel was here with his mother, sister, brother and fellow Penguins, spreading the man’s ashes on either end of the ice, near the goals he patrolled.
“So if I ever play goalie,” Joel says, “I like thinking he’s with me, helping me out.”
The ashes of three other past Penguins are kept in the shed, among the Zambonis and tools and mementos from games gone by, including that one with Bob Johnson.
The Victor Cup is off in a corner, a wood block topped by a miner’s tin mug. It’s the topic of the first announcement Gary Horton makes in the clubhouse.
Everyone has gathered around, sweaty and swigging beer.
“First, concerning the Cup. The entry fee,” he says. “The entry fee is an armload of wood per team.”
Everyone drinks to that. “Now,” Horton continues. “Plates.”
“I wanted to recognize two of the guys who were here the day we started.”
His son, J. “Dawg” Heurteaun. And Brian’s son, Tim “Toe Drag” Hayes.
Everyone claps and drinks again. And the fathers, their skin cold-red and wrinkled, hug their boys.
And they’re no longer boys but men, all aching more now than they did then, all older but forever Penguins.