RAPID CITY, S.D. -- There are bighorn sheep on the side of Highway 44 on the edge of the city. They come down from the craggy hills that rise up from the roadway. Sometimes, they get on the road and block traffic until they amble out of the way.
Down by a nearby creek, the white, weathered boards from an old outdoor rink are still standing, although the structure gets more use now from dog owners training their pets than skaters.
Between the old rink and the creek, you can see traces of the houses that used to occupy this space, stone steps leading nowhere, the remnants of a fireplace or a wall.
On the night of June 9, 1972, heavy rainfall, and the failure of the nearby Canyon Creek Dam, unleashed a wall of water that wiped out all the homes in the area. The flood left 238 people dead.
In the wake of that tragedy, the city decreed that virtually all commercial and residential development along the creek that winds through Rapid City would be turned over to green space.
Bob Fuchs, a local businessman and hockey dad, went down to the rink at 10 p.m. on cold winter nights and flooded the surface so kids could skate the next day. One corner of the rink caught more sun than the rest, so he had to add extra water. If it was windy, the leaves played havoc with the surface. Occasionally, the water pump for the rink would deliver a small trout or two from the creek.
At best, it was bumpy, but it was ice. There was hockey in Rapid City.
Why they're here
The home of the Rushmore Hockey Association youth hockey program is announced with a banner attached to a sheet of plywood in front of a nondescript building, sitting between a couple of lumber companies on the outskirts of town.
Inside, though, the ice is fresh and smooth, and in the quiet moments before the dressing room doors open, the shiny surface is a clean slate, suggesting anything is possible.
They come clumping out toward the ice; kids looking for sticks, trying to get helmets to fit just right, looking up in the stands for parents, stepping tentatively onto the surface.
Some of the children come from sound, stable families; others come from an atmosphere where every step is dogged by the shadow of neglect, abuse and poverty. In the moment their blades touch the ice, no one watching can tell the difference. And, hopefully, the kids' only thoughts will be of balance and sticks and pucks -- the game.
This isn't about how hockey is a shield against things like abusive parents or not having enough money for food or the other things that haunt families in Rapid City and other communities in North America. This is, instead, about how hope and change come by finding common threads.
In Rapid City, hockey has become such a thread. And one of the things that has brought more of the sport to this community is a program called Goals & Dreams.
It is the kind of thing that can, in an instant, dissolve the distance between a place such as Rapid City and the faraway idea of the National Hockey League.
"A way to give back"
It's been almost 10 years since former NHL Players' Association head Bob Goodenow, players Mike Gartner, Adam Graves and Ken Baumgartner and union fund administrator Devin Smith sat down and figured out a way to try to replant some of their wealth into the hockey soil.
"We needed a way to give back," Smith said.
They talked about $100,000 a year, then $200,000. They considered how important it was to have a program that reflected the global nature of the NHLPA's membership, almost 30 percent of which comes from outside North America.
Approaching its 10th anniversary, Goals & Dreams, as inspirational as it is anonymous, has donated $16 million to grassroots programs around the world. It has given out 10,000 sets of equipment, built boards and helped pay for or refurbish ice-cleaning machines and safety glass.
This doesn't count the monies donated privately by players to match Goals & Dreams donations, like Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who added $150,000 out of his pocket to help fund a project in his native Sweden. Smith, Gartner and dozens of players also have come out to launch and support these projects in places as diverse as Romania and Harlem and Siberia, in places as remote as northern Canadian native communities, where teen suicide and substance abuse are part of daily life.
There have been snowmobile journeys across frozen rivers and starstruck kids and thankful parents.
In one native Canadian community, Goals & Dreams has helped alter the often fractious relationship between residents and local law enforcement. Before the arrival of hockey equipment, youngsters often would throw rocks at the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police vehicles, a symbol of years of mistrust of law enforcement. But the RCMP officers in the community helped administer the donated equipment, and all of a sudden, they were the people helping the kids rather than some faceless enemy to them.
"That one was amazing," Smith said. "It really changed the community."
Of his 50 visits, Smith recalls a memorable, whirlwind trip that included stops in the Czech Republic, Moscow and Siberia. He jokes it was like being John Candy in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles": two days on a plane, two days on a train, two days in a hotel. On that trip, Goals & Dreams delivered 350 sets of equipment. On the last leg of the trip to Penza, about 400 miles outside Moscow, Smith met one of the many organizers with whom he would develop a friendship that transcends the program.
Rashid Davydov, a former Russian league netminder, asked Smith when he could expect a bill for the equipment. Smith laughed. No bill would be forthcoming, he explained. Davydov remained skeptical. He told Smith of a Russian saying: "The free cheese is in the mousetrap only."
Smith insisted there was no trap, that this cheese was, indeed, free. Davydov later showed up unexpectedly at Smith's door near Toronto; he stayed with Smith and his family for a few days.
The program has evolved throughout the years. It used to be about doing everything from building boards and buying protective glass, to providing or refurbishing ice-resurfacing equipment. Now the focus is on getting kids who wouldn't otherwise have a chance to play into skates and pads.
And the program is not just a "drop a check and walk away" kind of operation. The funding requires a detailed plan on how the funds and equipment are to be used and how the community is doing its own work. About 25 percent of projects will receive additional funding or equipment as time passes and their programs expand.
"Now, we focus solely on hockey equipment for underprivileged kids," Smith said.
"It was never and isn't a goal of ours to produce the next NHLPA member or the next AAA player."
Instead, Goals & Dreams has opened a door to the game that would have forever been shut to thousands of kids and, in doing so, has changed communities.
Rapid City is no different.
Smith said he was taken by the grant proposal submitted by the Rushmore Hockey Association, its homey appeal and the fact that it had come so far so fast in establishing hockey where the sport didn't have the kind of roots it does in many communities.
"It was a no-brainer for us to support this project," Smith said.
And so, three pallets of new hockey equipment recently showed up at Genae Sundby's home.
The driver unloaded the equipment under Sundby's car port. The devoted hockey mom (and adult hockey player with a reputation for gooning it up, her friends happily report) worried it would rain, so she loaded $20,000 worth of new gear into the back of her pickup truck.
Three loads later, she had delivered all the equipment to the rink that she and other parents in Rapid City helped build and now help run.
Goals & Dreams in pictures
For more evidence of the hope and change the initiative brings to grassroots hockey programs and underprivileged kids, see this photo gallery.
If you build it ...
After the 1972 flood, the closest indoor rinks to Rapid City were in Gillette and Pierre, about a 2½-hour drive away, depending on the weather. But hockey players and their parents still made the journey for games and practices. The first time the Rapid City kids went to skate on the smooth surface, they fell like bowling pins.
"Literally, there was a pile of 10 kids right in front of the door because none of them was used to good, shiny ice," Fuchs said.
Eventually, Rapid City built an arena, but parents of local minor hockey players found it difficult to get enough ice time.
"From the moment they opened, we needed more than one sheet," said Lynn Tucker, a local optometrist, father of two and president of the Rushmore Hockey Association.
So RHA built its own.
It raised money and found a local doctor who was willing to sign for the $750,000 loan needed to complete construction. It wasn't quite an old-fashioned barn-raising, but it was close.
Everything was done on a shoestring.
Local lumber companies donated a lot of the wood. They also plowed the driveway and parking lot when it snowed. At first, there was just a sheet of ice and small cinderblock dressing rooms with no roof. The former mayor of Rapid City came out to open the rink and said it looked like a mighty fine pole barn. It might have been true, but it was their pole barn. For a long time, there was no heat, no showers and cold metal bleachers that would hold about 30 people.
They built slowly.
They added a concession stand and a cozy, enclosed lobby with tables at a cost of about $80,000. There are now television screens in the lobby. (They, too, were donated.) The upkeep of the arena falls to the families and players. There isn't a staff. Parents take courses on how to drive the Zamboni -- one they bought used. Teams are responsible for various aspects of the arena, whether it's manning the concession stand, sweeping or cleaning the washrooms. The food served in the concession stand is mostly homemade, like their world-famous hot chocolate, chicken soup and chili.
RHA bid on hosting the state girls' hockey championship but was told it would need enclosed dressing rooms and room for 1,000 spectators. It got that done and ended up hosting the tournament.
The annual budget to run the rink is $312,000, and last year, for the first time in five years of operation, the association was in the black (by $3,000, to be exact). That's why it doesn't have a glitzy sign out front.
"Nothing new this year," Tucker said with a laugh, repeating the association's current mantra. "We're one of the only privately funded rinks in the country. It's our show. We get to do what we want when we want to."
By operating in the fashion it does, RHA keeps its costs for players at a modest level. It costs $150 per season for a house league player and $650 for a varsity or travel team player. If the costs of running the building were simply passed on to the players' families, it would cost $1,400 per player. If parents or families can't afford the fee, they can apply for a "scholarship," which means they can do extra duties to help work off partial payment of registration.
"We've never turned a kid away," Sundby said. "We've been able to accommodate everybody."
The local association also makes money by selling programs at home games of the new Central Hockey League team, the Rapid City Rush, which plays in a new facility attached to the convention center. Capacity is 5,119, with a season-ticket base of about 1,900. The club seats sold out in about 10 hours, so the team added more.
In this fledgling hockey town, the survival of both the minor hockey group and the new CHL team are intrinsically linked. Without a grassroots hockey community, without young fans pestering parents to go to games and buy merchandise, the challenge facing the Rush would be much more difficult.
Without a hockey team to watch and connect with, it would be harder to sell the game to youngsters and give them something to emulate.
Help through hockey
Tucker sits on the board of the local Youth & Family Services group, so it was a natural fit for YFS to help introduce some of the kids it helps to this program. YFS is a private, nonprofit group that has operated in Rapid City since 1965. It services 11,000 children and families.
Many of the children who take part in the group's programs are at-risk children. That means everything from living below the poverty line to issues of alcohol and drug abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, racism and gender discrimination.
The hockey program has been an unexpected bonus.
"There's a big link between physical well-being and social acceptance and being able to fully function in society," said Steve Merrill, the development director for YFS. "What we're finding is that the girls are taking to the ice like pros. We've been really fortunate.
"It's just phenomenal. We're looking at this opportunity as being the tip of the spear," he said. "A program like this helps to show them the situation they're in now doesn't have to be there forever. Hopefully, it'll grow and flourish and help more kids."
Tucker already is examining whether hockey might be a good fit with another local program, one that houses teens estranged from their families as a result of alcohol, drugs or abuse.
Dan Petereit, the man who wrote the original Goals & Dreams proposal for RHA, is also a radiation oncologist and researcher studying the high rates of cancer in Native Americans. His work has put him in contact with residents of the Pine Ridge Oglala/Sioux Reservation near Rapid City. It is the eighth-largest reservation in the United States, and it's located in two of the poorest counties in the country.
Petereit also sees the game as something of a portal. He sees Goals & Dreams' arrival in Rapid City as a start. He'd like to see arenas in native reservations all over South Dakota.
He's not alone.
Nick Tilsen, executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation at Pine Ridge, heard what the Rushmore Hockey Association was doing and about Goals & Dreams. The group has set aside a tract of land on which it wants to build and support businesses, housing, community space and a hockey rink.
"It's a perfect fit for us," Tilsen said.
Why it's worth it
Up in the stands, the minor hockey parents have named the venue Thunderdome in honor of the AC/DC songs that blare out of donated speakers.
Amy McDonald calls out to her 11-year-old son, Sean. "Wow, way to go!"
Until a few weeks ago, Sean had never played hockey. Social workers with the local Youth & Family Services agency told Sean that some NHL players had sent equipment to town and asked whether he would he like to play.
Oh, yeah -- he wanted to play.
From that first session last month, Sean has brought home happy dinnertime descriptions about how he doesn't need a chair anymore to move around the ice, how he handles his very own stick and can make his way through the orange pylons that instructors have set up on the ice.
"He was so proud," McDonald said.
McDonald is a single mom with five children. Those kinds of dinnertime conversations are worth their weight in gold because, when you struggle to make ends meet and live in a rented two-bedroom home, you do your best to make sure your children don't feel different. You do your best to make sure their childhood isn't tainted by not having enough.
But the reminders of not having what others have are everywhere.
McDonald recalled how her 13-year-old daughter has recently become quiet and stopped asking for things. A friend told McDonald it was because her daughter didn't want to ask for things she knew her mom couldn't give her.
That's as hard a silence as there is for a parent. That's why an afternoon like this in the chilly rink, a chance to watch Sean play a game he never would have been able to play otherwise, settles somewhere between a gift and a miracle.
Today, McDonald, a receptionist at a local medical clinic, gets to see firsthand how her son has suddenly embraced the game.
"I don't even know how to describe it. This helps me to be proud of him, to encourage him. It really helps us to communicate that I'm here to watch him. It's a wonderful opportunity that we'd never be able to do without this program."
Ask another boy, Shawn.
When he was 2 days old, his mother dropped him off at his grandmother's house and walked away.
"She was afraid of him," Dorothy Janis said of her daughter.
For the past seven years, Janis has raised her grandson as though he were her own. She makes things for his class at school and isn't too proud to admit her fry bread is a big hit with Shawn's teacher and classmates. One day, he came home and told Dorothy he was going to play hockey.
"I was just surprised when he came in and told us he'd joined. I said, 'Do you know what it's all about?'" she said. "It's a new experience for him. He says, 'One of these days, I'm going to be a great hockey player, grandma.'"
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.