The names on the ice don't tell the whole story. This article, and series, is dedicated to the people behind the glass and on the staff that make the game of hockey happen, their stories not often heard but their passion undeniable. Kyle Houtz is a man you’ve probably never heard of. I sat down and talked with Kyle today before he had to head off to the Toyota Center to get ready for another game working for the Tri-Cities Americans.
“The greatest thing about this job is watching hockey grow and develop in the community.”
I first met Kyle in February of 2014 as I moved to Wiesbaden, Germany. Kyle and I were in the Army together and shared a common love, hockey. I was a newcomer to the base though I had been in country for a number of years while Kyle was starting goaltender and team captain for the Wiesbaden Vikings Red, a ice hockey team made of American soldiers, civilians, as well as a few German nationals. The Vikings have three different sub-teams, Black, Red, and White. Kyle was the goaltender for second team whereas I was in net for the third. After 10 years total service including 15 months in Iraq, two years in Korea, and another two in Germany, Kyle left the Army. The last two seasons he’s worked as both a Zamboni driver and more recently a video review operator for the Tri-Cities Americans. When you ask Kyle about hockey get ready for his face to light up, it’s something he loves more than these words will properly convey. I asked him what it’s like to work for his team in Eastern Washington and life after hanging up his uniform.
“Hockey out here in Tri-Cities is unique. You know, when you think about this part of the state you probably don’t think hockey. Nestled out here in the desert, it gets like 105 here in the summers, but there’s this team that’s been here for 30 years and still going strong.”
The Americans play at the Toyoto Center in Kennewick, Washington. About three and a half hours away from Seattle by car. A town of about 76,000, Kennewick may not be your prototypical hockey oasis, but according to Kyle the hockey culture in the Columbia Valley is booming.
“On game nights for the ice crew I usually show up two or three hours before the game. You can just feel the energy building up.”
Tri-Cities currently has six NHL prospects on their roster, including two first round picks: Juuso Välimäki of the Calgary Flames, and Michael Rasmussen of the Detroit Red Wings.
“Hockey here is till going, junior leagues are increasing, adult leagues are doing well, we have a lot of hockey talent that comes through here. One of the cool things about going to WHL games is you get to watch some of these kids, really NHL level talent, grow and develop. Seeing players like Barzal, Rasmussen, and Hart is amazing.”
Mathew Barzal, the former Seattle Thunderbirds player and current New York Islander is just one of many NHL players to come through the Pacific Northwest’s thriving WHL scene, a league of hockey prospects age 15-20.
What makes Tri-Cities so special?
“It’s mind blowing to see the strength of hockey culture here. We have a lot of former players that still come and visit, they spend time with the current players or just come to say hi. Had Carey Price out for events, Olaf Kölzig and Stu Barnes are both part owners and come around a lot. But it’s really the community, seeing the love for the team is great. We have a guy, Jimmy Butcher, he’s got a really distinct ‘woohoo,’ he’s a local favorite. He’s even got his own bobble head.”
So, what’s a typical game night like for a Zamboni driver?
“On game nights for the ice crew I usually show up two or three hours before the game. You can just feel the energy building up. People are getting ready for the game, moving everything around. We usually get out there and chip away extra ice, get the Zamboni’s out for some fresh ice, double check the equipment to make sure everything will be set. We inspect the glass to make sure it’s not cracked. The players don’t tell us when they crack the glass a lot of the times.”
Kyle and I both laugh, I can only imagine the shenanigans a group of 15-20 year old hockey players can cause.
Planning, Kyle explains, is the biggest part of game day preparation as the time windows for special events, grooming the ice, and making sure everything is set can be short.
“It’s a lot of mental preparation, pregame is usually really hectic, in game is more settled. Once it starts it’s about checking to make sure the ice sets correctly, environmental conditions can play a big part of that.”
What has Kyle done to kind of leave his mark on Toyota Center?
“Well, I was talking to the rink manager, my boss, and I came up with the idea to put the eagles on the red lines. Something to make the ice kinda special, just a local thing I wanted to do while we were painting this last summer and getting ready. Next thing you know, the Silvertips have little bears. They totally copied us.”
Kyle says laughing again. His manager is friends with the Everett Silvertips’ staff, but Kyle maintains they did it first.
How hard was it to get a job working in hockey after the Army?
“You know, it can be really tough. There’s a lot of people who just love this game and they never want to give it up. People don’t want to leave, you almost have to wait for the Zamboni driver ahead of you to pass away before you get a shot. But it’s a great job, I love it. The goal, of course, is maybe get a NHL job someday but it’s about who you know.”
Kyle explains that working at the rink has been a fantastic networking opportunity having met multiple professional team representatives. Recently, Kyle has started working more in the video review booth helping out the officials.
“For video work it’s a lot less physically demanding, I get there about an hour or so before the game. We check the booth, make sure the feeds are good. Alert the refs if anything in the video needs to be looked at like a goal or penalty. It’s a lot different, you have to be neutral but it’s really cool to see how things are split up between the refs on the ice and the league.”
So what does Kyle think about the future of hockey in Washington?
“Baring something really bad, it sure looks like the NHL is coming and I’m really excited. I think that hockey culture out here is just going to keep getting stronger. You see it in all the leagues. Watching people fall in love with this game is special. When I first got here there was a guy trying hockey for the first time and now two years later he’s playing B-league. It’s pretty special and I think that Washington isn’t like a lot of Canadian bordering states, but it will be once the NHL really takes off here.”
Like Kyle, I’m enjoying the Northwest hockey Renaissance and, baring a lockout, it sure looks like professional hockey is coming to Seattle. Kyle and I agree that WHL teams in the region will probably be looking at higher attendance as more people discover and fall in love with hockey in the area. But I had to ask him one more question, what to name the soon to be NHL franchise?
“I have two picks, first would be the Metropolitans. You go back to the roots, it’s already on the cup, not even on a sleeve it’s on the base so it’s not going anywhere. It’s an important name. I just don’t want to see the team take the name of a more junior team. But it’s a little dated so baring that? I’m on team Kraken.”
Time will tell if either of Kyle’s choices come to pass, but it was good catching up with this old friend of mine and lover of the game. If you’re lucky and catch us at the right time, you might find Kyle and I sharing a few drinks at the Angry Beaver or maybe you’ve even seen him at the Toyota Center if you’ve been out East. But in the fall of 2020, there’s one place you’ll find him for sure.
The opinions expressed in this article are that of the writer or the interviewee. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Tri-Cities Americans organization or management.