Discover Kalamazoo Sports exists to share the local impact of sports tourism in the Kalamazoo region by providing inspiration that encourages visitors and residents to discover Kalamazoo sports. By sharing the #WhyStory behind each one of our sports event partners, we hope you’ll find inspiration to “Discover Kalamazoo Sports” a bit further and find meaning and significance in the role that sports play in our community.


Established in 1965, the Kalamazoo Optimist Hockey Association (KOHA) recently celebrated its 55th season as a regional icon for youth hockey in Southwest Michigan. The word “optimist” comes from the original club known as the Kalamazoo Optimist Club who provided a free introduction to the sport of hockey for youth across the region.

As the club began to grow, so did the ability to offer free opportunities, which led to the creation of KOHA.

KOHA’s mission is to provide every boy and girl in Southwest Michigan the opportunity to enjoy and excel at the game of hockey. They offer a wide range of programs from Learn to Skate, Learn to Play, Beginning Hockey, to Junior Varsity travel teams.

“We do our best to offer a continuum of options both financially and developmentally so that we can engage as many youth in the game of hockey as possible and allow the best fit for them and their family,” said Dianne Shaffer, President of KOHA’s Board of Directors.

“We also partner with community organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and local schools to offer opportunities to experience the sport both on and off ice,” Dianne added.

“The smiles on the faces of all those young players and apprehension of their parents as they enter the ice in full gear and take off on their own.  That is the moment I know we have another player and family joining our club for a lifetime,” said Matt Kakabeeke, KOHA Hockey Director.

Player development is KOHA’s top priority.

KOHA has crafted its skilled coaching staff around both current and former professional hockey players from the Kalamazoo Wings and the NHL, along with former college players who prioritize player development at the core of their teachings.

“Our club is dedicated to providing programming and instruction to age-appropriate, age-specific, skill development with assistance from USA Hockey,” said Kakabeeke.

To KOHA, on ice development is just as important as off the ice. To better serve athlete development and wellness off the ice, KOHA partners with Richland based business, Athletic Mentors for a unique blend of performance powered mental and physical conditioning.

“In today’s youth sports culture, where so many coaches and organizations are driving kids to specialize too early, I am proud to be part of a movement that emphasizes each child’s potential and development while still being competitive,” said Stephanie Dukesherer, KOHA Marketing & Communications Director.

KOHA’s impact stretches far beyond the sport of hockey.

Not only does KOHA have an impact on our local youth but the association also drives visitor spending and brings great economic impact to our community as well. Since 2019, KOHA has brought an estimated $1.6 million in economic impact to the Kalamazoo region by hosting state and regional youth hockey tournaments at their home base, Wings West.

As a national leader and model club, KOHA has established a strong reputation not only in the state of Michigan, but across the country.

“KOHA is a USA Hockey American Development Model (ADM) Model Club; a designation only achieved by 24 other associations in the United States.  With this designation, KOHA has committed to meeting or exceeding the highest standards for youth hockey player development,” said Kakabeeke.

KOHA was set to host the 2020 USA Hockey Youth Tier II National Championships in April, but due to COVID-19 it was cancelled. Fortunately, the championship will be returning to Kalamazoo in 2022.

Kalamazoo’s hockey community is one of a kind and that is largely because of KOHA. What makes KOHA especially unique is its opportunity for player development. KOHA trains its players from the ground up, giving each player the confidence to excel in every area of the sport at their own pace.  Whether you’ve skated before or you’re lacing up for the first time, KOHA has the coaches and staff that’ll get you to where you want to be.

If you’re interested in learning more about KOHA, visit the Kalamazoo Optimist Hockey Association’s website or keep up with them on their social channels including FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

To learn more about what is happening in the Kalamazoo sports community, we encourage you to follow Discover Kalamazoo Sports on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram and stay tuned for more #WhyStories.