The Cup spilleth over
Inspired by the Bruins’ title run, young skaters are taking up youth hockey, and elite players are chasing higher goals
FOXBOROUGH - The players on the South Shore Kings are among the most elite in youth hockey in Massachusetts. Many alums of the private club team go on to impressive college hockey careers. A select number have been drafted by the National Hockey League and play for top teams, including the Boston Bruins.
“You play hard,’’ said Greg Browne of Cohasset. “This is a sport where you have to rely on teammates and hold up your end of the bargain.’’
“Our coach tries to get the most out of us at all times,’’ said Connor Fallon of South Weymouth. “Just keep going. The whole goal is to play college hockey.’’
“Bigger, stronger, faster,’’ said Joe Prescott of Norwell. “If people say you aren’t good enough, don’t listen.’’
Words of wisdom from 18-year-old masters of youth hockey to children south of Boston who are taking to the ice in increasing numbers - many no doubt inspired by the Boston Bruins’ exhilarating spring rush to the 2011 National Hockey League championship.
Call it the Stanley Cup spike. In Norfolk and Plymouth counties, hockey programs for boys and girls ages 8 and under are seeing a registration increase of 15 to 20 percent, according to preliminary estimates from Massachusetts Hockey.
Across the state, the same age bracket shows an enrollment rise of at least 10 percent, said USA Hockey’s membership development manager, Kevin Kavanagh, a Duxbury native. Official numbers will be released in January.
“We typically see this kind of growth after the Stanley Cup,’’ Kavanagh said. “We saw the same thing in Illinois after the Chicago Blackhawks won in 2010.’’
Meanwhile, USA Hockey is encouraging young people, ages 4 to 9, to give the sport a skate by offering “Try Hockey for Free’’ events at 430 sites across the country on Saturday. Participating local rinks include the Quincy Youth Arena, Ulin Memorial Rink in Milton, Boch Ice Center in Dedham, Connell Memorial Rink in Weymouth, Hobomock Arena in Pembroke, and the Mark Bavis Arena in Rockland.
Young people now entering local Learn to Skate programs may someday end up on the Kings’ radar, said head coach Scott Harlow, whose protege, Charlie Coyle of East Weymouth, was selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the San Jose Sharks.
“The Bruins gave every kid that plays hockey a reason to believe,’’ said Harlow. “It was pretty much a lunch-pail hockey team; there were no superstars. These were your average hard-working kids. You have to be inspired by what they did. It’ll keep kids playing, and maybe I’ll see the fruits of those labors in a few years.’’
The Kings, with 26 players, aim for placements at top colleges, and from there many would like to go professional.
“I’m very demanding as a coach,’’ said Harlow. “I try to give these kids everything I have and expect the same from them. I don’t put up with kids who aren’t going to give me 100 percent.’’
While some players dream of entering the ranks of the elite, many others are satisfied playing hockey for recreation. Public and private youth hockey programs at rinks scattered throughout the suburbs south of Boston are working to develop involvement with the sport, said Keri-Anne Allan, president of Massachusetts Hockey.
Younger players are the foundation for growth within the state’s hockey culture, representing the base of a pyramid that at its tip may produce a handful of elite players, said Allan. Countless others will not make it to college or professional leagues, she said, but will be drawn into a lifelong relationship with the sport of hockey, a main goal of Massachusetts Hockey.
“We want the others to be lifers,’’ she said. “We want to see that when they are my age or older they are still involved and volunteering - that hockey is part of their lives in some way, shape, or form.’’
Allan, 35, started in hockey at age 5 and played all the way through her secondary school years and at Northeastern University. She proceeded to coach in youth programs for a dozen years before taking an executive position with Massachusetts Hockey.
Last week, Allan and other Massachusetts Hockey representatives met with about two dozen area parents and coaches in a conference room at the Holiday Inn in Dedham to discuss the future of youth hockey. Many of those present expressed enthusiasm for “growing the game’’ in Massachusetts - and brainstormed about ways to support recreational town programs.
“I’m still in touch with guys from Duxbury Youth Hockey,’’ Kavanagh, from USA Hockey, told the group. “Those are the years when you make memories.’’
Kavanagh also told the gathering that it’s crucial to keep the number of children enrolling in youth hockey programs steadily increasing. Last season, from Sept. 1, 2010, through Aug. 31, 2011, there was a 7.5 percent increase in children ages 8 and under registered to play youth hockey in Massachusetts, the biggest increase in the last five years, according to statistics from USA Hockey. The number of players in the 8-and-under age bracket was 13,642.
With those numbers expected to rise by at least 10 percent, it remains to be seen how many will make it to the elite junior level - or go on to careers in college or the NHL.
“The Stanley Cup win is great,’’ said Allan. “It sets the bar higher for kids to create goals. Whether they make it or not is a different story, but goals are great to shoot for.’’
At the Foxboro Sports Center, home of the South Shore Kings, players compete in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, described as the “pinnacle of the skill development program of USA Hockey.’’ The league includes more than a dozen club teams spanning the East Coast, including several from Massachusetts, known as a hockey state, and others from New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.
The Kings are top competitors, currently leading the southern division and aiming for a national title. The team has an established history as a founding member of the league: In 1993, Harlow coached a team called the New England College Development League Classics, which helped start the league. Later, the Classics became the Walpole Stars, then the Foxboro Stars, and then in 2007 owner Rich Touzos renamed the team the South Shore Kings, befitting an organization that aims to represent the whole region south of Boston.
It isn’t easy to land a spot on the Kings. The team holds tryouts in April, but people in the hockey world know it’s best to be invited. This year the players, ages 20 and under, hail from Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, even Quebec. Despite the steep competition, the majority of the Kings are from Massachusetts - with more than a quarter from the suburbs south of Boston, including Cohasset, Mansfield, Milton, Norwell, Norwood, Pembroke, and Weymouth.
As a recent headline in USA Junior Hockey Magazine declared, “It’s Good to Be Kings.’’ Just look at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft preliminary watch list released last week. Prescott is on it, as are Kings teammates Nicholas Bligh of Milton and Jimmy Vesey of North Reading.
The New Jersey Hitmen and the New Hampshire Monarchs also have three players apiece named. In Massachusetts, Rockland’s Bay State Breakers and Boston’s Junior Bruins each have two players on the list. All these teams play hockey at a level that commentators routinely describe as “thrilling.’’
“Our lives have been hockey,’’ said Browne. “The best part about playing this sport is the locker room. It’s the bonding. It’s hard to describe unless you’re a part of it.’’
Prescott said he loves the thrill of the game.
“I like to score goals,’’ he said.
In another part of the rink, teammates, finished with ice work, were doing intensive running drills. As the clock ticked, none of the players wanted to be late for this second training shift of the day. It’s all or nothing, they said: Go hard or go home.
Said Fallon: “Just don’t take shifts off, and you’ll get there.’’
Meg Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.