The face of hockey in the valley
If there is a face to the sport of hockey in the Yampa Valley it would be Jim Fournier.
Fournier, 64, who owns Blades, a hockey shop in Steamboat Springs, has been involved in hockey in some way since the first time he strapped on his skates when he was four years old.
“I loved the sport from the first time I put on skates,” said Fournier.
Life still revolves around hockey for Fournier, literally. His house is over the hockey shop, which is located next to his tire shop. Even his two cats are named after the legendary hockey players (Mario) Lemieux and (Wayne) Gretzkey. Fournier is all about hockey and the children who play it.
“Hockey without kids is nothing to me,” said Fournier. “Hockey with kids is 90 percent of my life.”
Fournier grew up in Detroit. He learned to play hockey with the help of his father, who was from Pembroke, Ontario, before the days of neighborhood ice arenas. The ponds around Detroit are where his passion for the sport grew.
He moved to Chicago after college, taught school, directed a youth hockey program there and was the night manager of an ice arena. His pond hockey roots instilled a philosophy that he preaches from his store, which looks more like a hockey temple than a sporting goods store.
The self-proclaimed “Champion of Pond Hockey Players” is adamant about passing his philosophy on to the children and parents who visit his store, even if it causes him to lose customers.
“I guess you could call me the skate Nazi, like the soup Nazi on Seinfield,” Fournier boasts. “I will turn down parents who try to buy equipment for their kids without bringing them to the store. Their connivance is not as important to me as their kids’ safety.”
He points to the Craig youth hockey program as an example of his quest to make sure children are well protected. According to Fournier, when hockey first got started in Craig, a representative of the program came up and bought some helmets. The program didn’t have enough money to supply each child with their own helmet, so program directors kept the helmets in a box at the rink and each time a child skated, they picked a random helmet out of the box.
“They didn’t fit right, so I told them the next year that I wouldn’t sell them any more helmets until they took the necessary measures to give each kid a helmet that fit correctly,” said Fournier. “They did, and the people of Craig are much better about making sure their kids have the right gear now.”
The same treatment applies for parents who don’t go along with Fournier’s equipment or play for the enjoyment of the sport philosophies. A mother wanted to create a competitive traveling squirt (9-10 year-old) team. When she came into his store, Fournier told her that he felt the children were too young to be that competitive about the sport.
“I told her what she created is a league of kids that are have and have nots,” said Fournier. “Every kid should have the chance to play hockey. She hasn’t been back to see me since, but it doesn’t bother me. I pull no punches.”
Since his move to the Yampa Valley in 1967, Fournier has seen some changes to the game that he doesn’t like. He sees a trend of building elite hockey teams that leave less-skilled children out.
“It is much faster, much more violent, much less friendly and the equipment has gotten much better,” said Fournier. “When I played, we used Life magazine and a shoe lace as a shin pad and everyone who came down to the pond played. Hockey in this area essentially went from very small programs in very unreliable facilities to larger programs and an elite level that leaves kids out.”
Fournier sees youth programs shifting their concentration to winning instead of just playing.
“If I had grown up in this environment with the skills I had, I wouldn’t have played hockey,” said Fournier. “I would like to see less emphasis on winning and more emphasis on the joy of playing.”
Even though hockey has gone the way of society and become faster paced, there are still some success stories. He is quick to defend the sport with the story of a 14-year-old whose mother had left and like most children, he was blaming himself and the personal blame had spilled over into his attitude towards life.
“He was a sloppy couch potato that was hunched over his Nintendo all the time,” said Fournier.
A friend who played hockey brought the child into Fournier’s store and got him started playing hockey. According to Fournier, it made a difference in the boy’s life.
“His attitude has done a 180-degree turn,” said Fournier “He went from a Nintendo potato to having some pride in his step. Hockey did this to him in one year.”
Fournier’s involvement isn’t limited to just selling equipment and being concerned about his customers’ hockey interests. Fournier stopped playing the sport competitively five years ago, but just because he stopped playing doesn’t mean that he has hung up his skates. In fact, he remains about as close to the action as he can get without playing; he referees.
“I like the interaction with the kids,” said Fournier. “It still gives me the chance to teach kids the game, respect for the game and respect for authority. It’s a part of the game that I can probably do forever.”
As if Fournier doesn’t hear enough from the children on the ice as a ref, he takes it a step farther. Every summer he drives three different groups of children to three different sessions of hockey camp in British Columbia, Canada one from Craig and two from Steamboat Springs in a school bus that he has remodeled for the sole purpose of making these trips. It has swivel recliners, a galley, a TV, a VCR, a refrigerator, sleeping quarters and bathroom.
Keeping with his pond hockey philosophy, the trip is limited to only the one-week camp sessions and the seats on the bus are not given to the children with the most ability, but to those who can get along with the other children.
“I try to tread the fine line between vacation and not training,” said Fournier. “The parents and I sit down with a list and decide who comes. It usually comes down to first-come, first-serve, unless there is a problem kid then he isn’t invited to come along; it is as simple as that.”
Fournier views the six weeks of camp traveling and the 27-hour trip to Canada and back as his vacation.
“The trip seem to be as much fun as the camp,” said Fournier, as he proudly points out a photo of the customized bus. “It’s my vacation and it’s never based on skill level. If a kid isn’t coercive, he doesn’t come.”
Fournier has also made financial sacrifices for the good of hockey. He has donated goals to the Craig youth program that would have cost the program ($1,300). He also keeps the price of his equipment about as low as he possibly can, according to Jim Wood, the coach of the bantam team in Craig.
“He is in the business because he loves the sport, not to make money,” said Wood. “He keeps his prices in line with most Canadian catalogs. I buy exclusively from him for myself and my kids because he has treated us so well.”
Wood also points out the fact that Fournier was instrumental in helping Wood and his Craig youth team understand the game of hockey and how to coach the sport.
“When I first started coaching, I didn’t understand anything about hockey,” said Wood. “He was a teacher and a supporter, helping me help kids in the hockey program. He has helped a ton of kids here.”
Wood’s fondest story of Fournier’s dedication to hockey and the children who play the sport has to do with a needy goalie and early-morning hours.
According to Wood, the team was headed to Kremmling for a tournament but the goalie needed some new pads. The problem? The team was passing through Steamboat Springs at 5 a.m., a time when most sporting goods stores are closed.
“We stopped by and he opened the store for us at 5 a.m,” said Wood. “The goalie got his pads and we went on and played in the tournament.”
When asked about keeping his store open, Fournier speaks as though it is his duty as a hockey store owner to be open whenever someone needs equipment.
“Hockey isn’t always played at the most convenient times,” said Fournier. “It isn’t a big deal for me because I live above the store, but I will open up just about any time, including Christmas.”
Fournier snickers when he is asked about his wife, Ann’s, involvement in the sport.
“She hates the actual sport,” said Fournier. “She loves the kids and helps them as much as she can around the shop when I’m not here, but she is defiantly a hockey widow.”
Fournier has be a fundamental part of the foundation of the sport of hockey in the Yampa Valley. The testimonials of his devotion, certificates of appreciation, hang proudly alongside the skate laces and hockey posters in his store. He points out one Christmas card in particular as one of the thank yous that he received this year. He seems to get teary- eyed as reads the homemade card from a 14-year-old. The boy talks about his first time in Fournier’s shop. He wrote that he still remembers Fournier giving him his first hockey puck and what Fournier said to him when he gave it to him,
The card ends, “Thanks for everything you have done for me.”
Fournier quickly points out:
“You don’t often get sentiment like that from a 14-year-old boy. Kids and hockey are my passion and I just enjoy doing it,” said Fournier. “If I can pass on something that has been such a large part of my life, then my purpose here has been fulfilled.”
As someone who’s achieved the top prize in past years, Matt Ounsworth was more than willing to accept runner-up in this year’s Whittle the Wood Rendezvous.