LITTLE FALLS, Minn. — As if 2020 needed to throw one more challenge in the faces of youth sports organizers, the people who run the youth hockey association in Little Falls got a true look at their bank accounts in the spring, and what they found was shocking.

Per a criminal complaint filed in the early summer, a former Little Falls Youth Hockey treasurer could not account for around $90,000 of association funds that had gone missing. Kelly Beth Alonso-Heath later admitted to police that she had taken the money for personal use and to pay her bills, and is facing up to 20 years in jail per Minnesota state law.

While insurance will cover roughly half of the LFYH losses, their plans for arena upgrades — including putting a roof over their outdoor ice sheet and improving the press box in their indoor arena — have been put on hold because of a lack of funds.

“With the money being gone now, it makes it impossible to do any of the improvements to the arena and impossible to put a roof over the outdoor sheet of ice that we have,” said Carmen Johnson, the LFYH president, who said that the association tries to self-fund arena improvements to prevent increases in the cost of ice time.

Despite the pandemic and the bad financial news, Johnson said they expect to have 138 players in their youth hockey system this season, and have a dozen first-year players joining their free beginners program for mites, which is the highest number of new participants in at least a decade.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

In a close-knit community with fewer than 9,000 residents, the crime came as an unpleasant surprise to just about everyone involved. Alonso-Heath reportedly blocked other board members’ access to the association’s bank accounts, and presented falsified statements to the board members. The ruse was discovered when board members regained access to the true bank records and found an account that should have contained $130,000 instead held just $13,000.

“It definitely was shocking. We never expected this from her. We never expect this from anybody,” Johnson said. “She’s a very, very nice woman, and I do not believe she went into this maliciously, intending on stealing the money. She got in over her head, and it probably snowballed on her.”

Despite safeguards put in place in nearly every youth hockey association in an effort to prevent skimming, embezzlement is still a common problem. A 2018 report from a New York TV station found more than 250 reported incidents nationwide of youth sports officials stealing money, and estimated more than $17 million was lost over a multi-year period. The losses are often covered in the form of higher prices to play, and more need for fundraising efforts.

Johnson said LFYH is not doing either of those things as they recover from the theft, acknowledging that many in the community are already hurting due to the pandemic. Instead, they have sought voluntary donations and have been delighted by the number of people who have been willing to help fill the fiscal hole.

“We’ve had money coming in through donations already, so the hockey community has at least stepped up to support us and help us out as much as they can. We really appreciate that,” said Johnson, who is the mother of four hockey players and the wife of a coach. “I’ve definitely gotten teary-eyed when people that I don’t know, and people that I do know, step up to help. It’s very rewarding. I know that hockey people are good people, but this just reinforces it.”

Donations to the Little Falls Youth Hockey Association can be made by Venmo at @LittleFalls-YouthHockey or by mail to LFYH, PO Box 91, Little Falls MN 56345.

For more hockey news: The Rink Live is your top-shelf destination for regional hockey coverage. Situated in the country's premiere hockey footprint, skate on over for exclusive content and the latest in college, USHL and high school hockey. Subscribers to Forum Communications' network of newspapers also enjoy access to The Rink Live as part of their membership.

This season, sign up for The Rink Live newsletter to get the best hockey stories from across the region delivered to your inbox!