Most hockey clubs that venture to Jackson Hole each winter to take on the Moose at Snow King Sports and Events Center are here for their two-game series, then out and on to the next team.
Not so for the Yellow Jackets Hockey Club that split with Jackson over the weekend.
A hodgepodge of players — minus one notable turncoat this time — the Yellow Jackets have traveled to Jackson for a one-off the past couple of years. Recent iterations of the team have been largely Colorado-based players, but the squad traces its heritage back to a Junior B team from northern Minnesota.
That franchise, known as the Iron Range Yellow Jackets, had Eric Ballard as its head coach and Ballard’s father and two brothers as the owners. It ran from 1999 to 2001 before the elder Ballard died of cancer, and the doors were shuttered on the squad. That was until Ballard got a call from Moose head coach Bob Carruth, who knew Ballard from a series of summer hockey camps he had put on in Jackson.
“I had all these jerseys from the hockey team we owned in the early 2000s,” Ballard said. “We brought up a team from Colorado where I was coaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I would take juniors and seniors, kind of like a last hurrah before Christmas break.”
Ballard would often suit up in the Yellow Jackets kit himself. This year things have changed. Ballard became the director of Jackson Hole Youth Hockey over the summer and was even talked into donning the Moose colors during the season. When the Yellow Jackets skated away from the Moose on Friday night 5-4 and fell short 6-3 on Saturday, Ballard was skating for the Moose.
There was still a connection for Ballard to the guys suiting up on the other side, of course, considering he puts together the team. Some of the players hailed from Colorado, and some were players Ballard had coached with Team USA at the World University Games in Russia earlier this year.
The closest connection was Michael Ballard, his 23-year-old son who suited up opposite him after making the trip to Jackson for Christmas. A year ago Michael and Eric were linemates for the Jackets against the Moose. This time they sat on opposite benches.
“I was excited to play,” Michael said. “Last year we were on the same team.
“I wanted to play against him, just to show I can still play and have fun with it. You don’t get too many opportunities to play against your father in this sport.”
And getting to skate in the jerseys he watched fly by when his dad coached the original team? It makes lugging his old gear home for Christmas that much more worthwhile.
“The Yellow Jackets was the first time I ever started really enjoying hockey,” he said, “just watching my dad coach that team.”
Eric Ballard’s mission with Jackson’s youth hockey program might be to instill a similar sentiment in this community. He said he took the job with Jackson Hole Youth Hockey as a means of “giving back” to the sport that has sent him around the world the past two decades-plus, coaching athletes who have visions of playing NCAA or pro hockey. When he arrived there was no plan to skate himself; that was until Carruth floated the idea.
“Absolutely not,” Ballard said with a chuckle about his intentions to play this season. “I’m pushing the back end of the high 40s, and I don’t even play men’s league or anything. Bob asked me to get involved, and I thought why not, we’ll have some fun with it.”
Building a program and a hockey culture in a ski town is far from coaching at the junior, college and pro levels as he’s done, but it was a chance to create something in the next chapter of his life on the ice.
“I believed it was a blank canvas,” he said. “I had been traveling for so many years, been all over the world, and it was kind of my time to say, you know what, let’s build something the next 10, 15, 20 years.”
He said the program has 291 players enrolled, 72 of whom are girls. With hockey still trying to carve out its spot in a community known more for its skiing and outdoor pursuits, Jackson was the perfect opportunity to do the building.
“A lot of it kind of came down to quality of life and the fact I’d be able to come in here and kind of make my own Picasso, my own painting for my own youth hockey program,” he said. “It was kind of a unique alignment of what I wanted to accomplish in my life, and one of the things I wanted to accomplish was giving back to the lowest form of developmental hockey. Jackson fit that mold for me.”
And the senior Moose that take the ice most Fridays and Saturdays through the winter play a large, unique role in that. Whereas most youth hockey players around the country may only be looking up to the NHLers they see on TV, Ballard sees the Jackson youth holding that fervor and fandom for the many former pros who skate in Moose sweaters right on their home ice.
“A lot of the players on the youth hockey program really aspire to see and be some of these players on the Moose team,” Ballard said. “It’s a real unique situation, the first I’ve seen of its kind anywhere in the country, that’s for sure.”
The Moose (8-2) will be on a break this weekend before resuming the season Jan. 3 and 4. The Bozeman Stringers will be in town that weekend, followed by a team from Dallas on Jan. 10 and 11.
Eds: This story has been updated to include Eric Ballard's two brothers as owners of the original Iron Range Yellow Jackets.