They are family.
Members of the Dubuque Saints high school club team come from 12 different schools in three different states. They play together, work together, some as long as 15 years or longer — the parents, players, coaches and grandparents. They become a family, sacrificing for the good of each other and the team.
It is a long commitment for players and parents — most kids start at age four and play until their senior year in high school. Always in winter weather, parents and grandparents drive thousands of miles in a season that runs from late October to the first week in March. Nobody wants to know or say how many miles they drive each season or how much they spend in gas.
Steve and Katie Baumer’s son,Theo, is a JV goalie, who attends Midland. Baumer works third shift and goes from the rink to his job after practice and doesn’t get off until four or five in the morning. “The equipment can cost thousands of dollars, especially for a goalie,” he said.
“I didn’t think I’d be a hockey mom, but here I am,” said a smiling Heather Kretz, from Peosta, while packing lunches for the players for the upcoming tournament. Her son, Nolan, who has been playing since he was four, is a sophomore at Western Dubuque playing defense on the Saints JV team. Kretz added, “It is a commitment and worth every penny.”
Lining the Mystique ice arena are life-sized posters of local players who went on to stardom in college and the NHL. Though most club players will never make the NHL, some will play in college.
The Dubuque Saints high school club team of the Midwest High School Hockey League usually practices and plays their home games in Dubuque’s Mystique Community Ice Center. Unofficially,
practices might start as early as June. The high school kids practice every Monday through Thursday, which means they often miss other school activities. Yet according to one mother, all four Western Dubuque High School players have GPAs above 3.0.
The Dubuque Youth Hockey Association (DYHA) was organized in 1979 with the primary goal of youth development, not just learning to play ice hockey. And as the league boasts on its website, to “Keep kids out of hot water, putting them on ice.” Most kids start skating early,with teams for kids beginning at age four.
“Almost every weekend they are traveling somewhere — Omaha, Kansas City, Des Moines, Quad cities, etc.,” said Steve Kluesner, of Luxemburg. He and wife Barbara have two sons playing ice hockey and, like most hockey parents, they drive thousands of miles yearly, often in the worst weather, to support their son’s practice or attend games. Kluesner was working the penalty box for the JV game while his sophomore son, Wyatt, 16, played. “But now that Wyatt has his license, he drives himself to practice.”
Unlike other sports where parents can be more spectators, “This league requires parents to take an active role,” added Steve Kluesner.
Grandmother Vicki Nethery, whose 15-year-old grandson, Gavin Nethery from Hempstead, is on the JV team, said her grandson, like many of the players, laced up the skates and started on the ice at the age of four. Julie Mueller, whose son C.J., also at Hempstead, is now 15, had been playing since he was five.
After strong finishes in the season, both the JV and varsity teams made the championship playoffs in Des Moines this March.
The varsity team lost to No. 2-ranked Des Moines in the quarterfinals. After being tied 2-2 after two periods, Dubuque was outscored in the final period and lost a heartbreaker 4-2, even though they took 38 shots on goal compared to the Maple Leafs’ 21. However, the JV team
won its first game in overtime, defeating the DM Capitals, 3-2, on an unassisted shot by Joseph Ross, of Senior. Then, after losing their semifinal game, they came back to capture third place with a 2-1 win over the Quad Cities.
Tim Noonan, the Saints’ team representative the past three years, just finished his tenure in his son Jacob’s last year. Noonan said Jacob at Wahlert started late, didn’t start skating until age seven. “It is a culture, almost a religion for some,” he said.
Now that their season is over he said, ‘We’re going to miss it.
“I am still reeling a bit for it all being over,” admitted Noonan, whose son plans to attend Iowa State but not play hockey.
“The wound is still fresh,” he added. “I think he is more ready to be done than I am.”