Hockey is big in Anchorage, Alaska, as in so many communities in the lower 48 states. But it's also expensive. When the Anchorage school district announced in 2013 it was dropping girls' high school hockey as a cost-reduction measure, the Scotty Gomez Foundation -- named for Anchorage's biggest NHL star -- stepped in with emergency funds to keep it going.
But the solution was temporary -- the funding, raised through donations, was expected to run out this season.
That is, until Dick's Sporting Goods, which doesn't have a single store in Alaska, donated $200,000 from its Sports Matter program to the Gomez Foundation, keeping Anchorage's four girls' teams (about 100 players) on the ice through at least the 2018 season. The grant included $15,000 worth of new equipment -- sticks, helmets, practice jerseys, equipment bags, etc. -- and covers each player's $215 activity fee, starting next season.
"Finally someone sees value in them, more than just me, more than just mom and dad," Mandy Reale, a physical education teacher who runs the Anchorage girls hockey league through the Gomez Foundation, said in a telephone interview. "We have a lot of kids who live and die in Alaska and never leave the state, have never seen anything other than Alaska. To let them know there's another big world out there for them to explore is just great."
Dick's donation addresses an issue facing athletic programs across the U.S. From 2009 to 2011, schools cut sports budgets by about $3.5 billion, according to Up2Us, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes youth sports. Almost half of about 580 athletic directors said fundraising must be a significant contributor to their departments going forward.
Anchorage's girls' teams mix players from the city's eight high schools because not enough girls play for every school to field a team. (All eight have boys' teams.) Reale said the high school league is vital because many of the girls can't afford costs of $2,000 and more to join private leagues.
"We would lose half our girls without our high school hockey program," she said.
In 2013, the school district was looking for growth in the girls' hockey program to justify further funding, Reale said. Because there are so few players in the state, it was an unfeasible request, she added.
Anchorage's high school hockey program, like most local and state government services in Alaska, was historically funded by tax revenue from Alaska's oil companies. But amid a two-year slide in the commodity's price, the state is projecting 2016 oil and gas production taxes of $172 million, compared to about $390 million in 2015 and $2.6 billion in 2014, according to Alaska's Department of Revenue. The state doesn't collect personal income or sales taxes.
The city of Anchorage projected an $11.5 million revenue shortfall for 2016, partly due to declines in state revenue, the Alaska Dispatch News reported last month.
Reale knows too well that this one-time gift means the foundation will face the same funding dilemma in 2018. She said it's unlikely that the Anchorage school district would restore funding to girls' hockey given Alaska's economic issues, but she's optimistic private grants will be found when the Dick's donation runs out.
"We will need more money in three years," Reale said. "It's not going to magically become free to play hockey ever. But I think we've got to put all the pieces in motion now, and hopefully we can make it a viable program."
The Anchorage Boys & Girls Club sponsored the local youth league when Scott Gomez was growing up. Kids showed up with skates, and the club provided sticks and gear. From that modest start, Gomez went on to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 2000 and contributed to two Stanley Cup championships with the New Jersey Devils.
"I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if it wasn't for the Boys & Girls Club," Gomez said in a telephone interview from St. Louis, where he now plays for the Blues.
Though the foundation carries Scott's name, his father Carlos handles the day-to-day operations.
"My dad was the one who wasn't going to let anyone say, 'These girls can't play because they can't afford it.' Not in our town," Gomez said. "That should be the way it is. My dad and the foundation, and Dick's coming in there, they're the ones that should get all the credit. Dick's is the true hero."
Ryan Eckel, vice president of brand marketing at Dick's, said his company's charitable foundation pledged $25 million toward its Sports Matter program to aid underfunded youth athletic organizations nationwide. Eckel said 184 teams received donations last year, among them a nonprofit lacrosse group in Harlem, New York, and a football team for homeschooled students in Missouri.
"When we more recently learned that funding was running extremely low and that this would be the school district's last season, we wanted to step in and help," Eckel said in an e-mail. "It was hard for us to imagine girls not being able to play high school hockey in Alaska's largest city."