Between fly fishing on Saturday afternoon and golf on Sunday, benefactors and supporters of the Stirling Cup fundraiser for Aspen Junior Hockey gathered at Woody Creek Distillers.
Some of them enjoyed the Stirling Cup as their preferred way of supporting the AJH during the event’s 21-year existence, named after Stirling Cooper after his death. More than two decades later – and as the AJH celebrates its 50th anniversary – Stirling’s widow and cup organizer Jody Cooper, the cup and the AJH hope to rebound from COVID-19 as the fundraising contribution of funds has eclipsed six figures, capitalizing on the success of professional hockey in the state and continuing to carve out a place in the sport within the community by increasing access.
“One of the biggest impacts — one of the things we wanted to make sure — is if somebody wanted to play hockey, they had to play hockey,” Cooper said.
This is now Executive Director Harlan Pratt’s third year at the helm of AJH. He’s learned that his original goals of trying to make major strides, like dramatically increasing enrollment rates, just aren’t as achievable as he once believed. Coming from a market in Nashville – which is experiencing tremendous growth – the mountain community simply cannot offer the same quantifiable growth to its youth hockey organizations.
He said this year’s early registration numbers had been a godsend thanks to excitement over the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier this year – a complicated moment. for Pratt, a former Lightning minor leaguer with his brother Nolan, who is now an assistant coach with the Avs.
“I remember thinking I wanted to grow it, quadruple our numbers and maybe deliver a higher level of hockey,” Pratt said. “But as you learn the dynamics of how things work in the mountains, you realize that maybe it’s a bit too far-fetched to get there. … At the end of the day, I just want that the kids love it and have as many kids as possible I think if I can provide it as cheaply as possible it could open a lot more doors for kids who want to play, and who knows where it will take them from the.
For Pratt, it’s always about capturing these newcomers to the sport and building a foundation while trying to create next-level opportunities. The most skilled players have the opportunity to join teams with players from neighboring communities in “mountain” travel teams, as he described them.
For younger teams, it cut tuition by more than half, as those groups see the most entry-level players. For 6U players, early registration would run a player—especially their guardians—$200 for a season; the price was over $500.
The cost, however, was deferred to other programs. Pratt said that for the first time since joining, the rates for some of the older players have gone up to offset the discount for younger players.
This is where fundraising events such as the Stirling Cup have come in. Pratt said the direct impact of community support is not quantifiable as it not only goes to specific fees and equipment grants for players, but also plays a role in general expense payments, which allow them in turn better control price rates.
Over the history of the Stirling Cup, its highest point has been more than a $100,000 contribution, usually between $60,000 and $70,000, said AJH administrative assistant Jackie Ayers . She added that there were 15 scholarship recipients this year.
After the Stirling’s first week, she predicted a slight uptick from the average. She estimated that the number of fans attending the fly-fishing event had doubled from a year ago and the number of golf teams had increased from 24 to 28.
“COVID knocked us out for a few years,” Ayers said. “We didn’t even have the Stirling Cup a few years ago. … So it builds. It’s amazing, these events, Jody allowing us to do the Stirling Cup. We couldn’t do it without her.
This year two different types of hats were given out: one with the Stirling Cup logo on a black mesh trucker hat and another gold laced for long-time contributors to the annual fundraiser.
Cooper recalled another who had been to all 21 golf tournaments during a passing conversation from a local realtor who moved into the valley just before the first iteration, he said, and has since come.
For her, this continuing lineage – beyond just helping children – was a highlight.
“It really became a community event,” Cooper said. “This is the year where I really try to thank people because it’s really amazing. Some of these people have been with us for 21 years.
The Stirling Cup used to be a crammed-in-one-weekend event, but it’s now spanned two. September events include the Fly Fishing and Golf Tournament as the weather is more likely to allow, but it will move to the rink on December 10 with the Elders Game and Youth Skills Challenge. ‘Colorado Avalanche. Cooper said admission is free to the public.