WEST JORDAN — When Don Korth dies, you could bury him at center ice. Or at the very least have his funeral at a local rink.
"It would at least break up the monotony of the boring funerals," the longtime youth hockey volunteer said with a laugh.
Korth has been coaching or working to promote hockey in the Salt Lake area for more than 35 years. The 68-year old has no plans to stop, saying he'll be volunteering until he dies.
Luckily, he doesn't have to wait for a eulogy to have someone give him praise for all of his years of service. USA Hockey did that.
Last month he was given the William Thayer Tutt Award by the national organization, which is presented to "a volunteer who, during many years of service, has displayed a selfless dedication to the enhancement of ice hockey at the grassroots level in America."
The longtime firefighter is the first person west of the Mississippi to be given the award.
"I was shocked," said fellow longtime hockey volunteer coach Mike Holmes about USA Hockey picking someone out of a hockey backwater location like Utah.
"Not that Don isn't deserving," added Holmes, who is also executive director for Salt Lake City's first special-needs team. "I don't always agree with USA Hockey, but they did get a good guy."
Youth hockey coach Stephen Metcalf agreed. "Don is well deserving of the award. He has put in a lot of time."
The exact amount of time spent volunteering is a figure Korth cannot begin to estimate. However, his players don't need to know that. He has been known to motivate his players by sneakily telling them that the game they're playing would be his 500th win. It's becoming a running joke with former players who keep asking if he's won his 500th game yet.
Korth got bitten by the hockey bug in 1969 when a friend convinced him to go — on the second try — to a Salt Lake Golden Eagles game. That was that. Korth soon had season tickets, and when his son Darrin started playing hockey, he was coaching.
Not that he knew what he was doing (or could even skate) at first, he said.
"Back then, in hockey, if you were a warm body and you were interested they threw you on the bench," said Korth, who started as an assistant coach for a squirt team (ages 9 and 10).
He practiced skating after his shifts at the Salt Lake County Fire Department and went to as many coaching clinics as he could. Eventually, the student became the teacher. Now he's a USA Hockey Level 5 coach and has been the Coaching Education Program director for eight years.
One of Korth's strengths has been scrounging up cash for players' equipment, Holmes said. Basic equipment can cost several hundred dollars per player, which may limit who can play.
To help mitigate that factor, Korth founded the Korth Rebel Foundation, which promotes hockey at the entry level by helping new players get good coaching and equipment.
Korth has coached just about every level: youth, travel teams, high school, college, women, and for the past five years the Utah Grizzlies Special Needs Team in Salt Lake City.
The program, which also has a team in Provo, is available to children and adults who have developmental disabilities such as autism, Down Syndrome and Fragile X.
Holmes picked Korth to coach when he founded the team.
"He was kind of an obvious choice," Holmes said, because he has the patience required for the job.
"It's a challenge," Korth said. "I've learned a lot, (and) I don't look at them the same way again. They are so loving and understanding."
Recently the team participated in a tournament with teams from Colorado and California separating into three ability groups: A, B and C. Korth said the A teams, especially, were a sight to see.
"I just could not believe what was happening," he said. "That team could beat the J.V. teams in high school. I was amazed. I'd like to have everyone watch just once and see the caliber of play."
This team is adding to the many memorable moments Korth has had coaching: Taking traveling teams to nationals and to tournaments in Canada; helping host the junior nationals in 1993; and starting his own club, the Korth Rebels. All the while he coached several of his children and grandchildren.
"He gives a lot with very little compensation," Holmes said. "Not many people can do that."
Korth is happy to be a part of it all.
"I belong to the two greatest fraternities: the firefighter fraternity and the hockey fraternity," he said.
THE MORT REPORT1 comment on this story
The Deseret News has launched a new blog, which is the one-stop site for emerging sports in Utah that are not getting their just due. With focuses on hockey, rugby, lacrosse, MMA, wrestling and racing the blog can be a home for any underreported sport. Here's a few posts already on the site, themortreport.com:
A fifth Utah BMX racetrack opens
Women's lacrosse team takes second at nationals
A Q&A with Utah Warriors owner Sean Whalen
Utah wins team contest at a national youth wrestling meet
Utah hosting the High School hockey championships