2011-12-15 / News

Fewer youngsters have opportunity to play hockey because of costs

BY MARGO SULLIVAN

Hockey’s an expensive sport, and the price tag is beginning to change the way Rhode Island high school students play the game, according to coaches, parents and the executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.

So far, the good news is, none of the schools has dropped a hockey program, said Thomas Mezzanotte, executive director of the RIIL. In fact, thanks to the formation of co-op teams and girls’ teams, R.I. high school hockey is growing, he said. But the bad news is, the house leagues that prepared most youngsters to play high school hockey are struggling, due to competition from elite and expensive junior hockey leagues. Already some community training grounds, like the Cranston League for Cranston’s Future, have disappeared, Mezzanotte said. As these organizations depart, fewer youngsters will have the opportunity to play.

“The more elite programs you have, the fewer kids will be playing,” he said.

That’s already happening, according to parent Sharon McGreen of Narragansett. McGreen helped organize The Storm, the new girls’ co-op team from Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. Her son also plays, but she sees fewer elementary and middle school age boys learning hockey because of the expense. In a few years, she said, the boys’ high school game is going to feel the loss.

The Storm was able to start playing because corporate sponsors and boosters financed the team. The fundraisers even allowed the team to buy helmets for the players. Few teams are able to afford any equipment for the players, she said.

Boosters and co-op teams are among the creative solutions parents have found to keep hockey going, Mezzanotte said. But money is a big issue.

“I don’t see it as a crisis yet,” Mezzanotte said, “but it still is a concern.” Costs are a burden both for the schools and for parents, he said.

For the parents, the equipment alone takes a good bite out of the family budget, he said, and as technology has made the gear safer and better, the price tag has also gone higher.

When his youngsters were in school, they played with $50 wood sticks, he said, but today’s young athletes use graphite hockey sticks. They cost $150.

According to William Bennett, the Skippers’ assistant coach, a decent pair of skates costs about $500.

By the time a student is ready for high school hockey, the parents will have spent at least $10,000 on training, Robert Finelli, the Skippers’ new head coach said. Partly because of that investment, parents become impatient when high school teams don’t produce winning seasons.

“The parents start looking elsewhere,” he said. After the Skippers last year turned in a 2-15 record, most of the players did not come back to play for this year’s team.

“I’m missing my top players,” he said, and most of them are playing in a junior hockey league.

Finelli is not a fan of junior hockey leagues and believes the youngsters are being “sold a bill of goods.” His own son opted for an elite league, instead of playing for La Salle, he said.

“I begged him to play for his high school team,” Finelli said, and ultimately, the elite squad didn’t make any difference for his hockey future. His son played for a club team in college. He didn’t need to play in an expensive elite league to do that, he said.

But that’s not a message most parents want to hear.

“The parents won’t buy that at all,” Mezzanotte said. They’re convinced putting money into the sport will pay off.

Mezzanotte has seen players go through the house leagues and wind up every bit as good as the youngsters who played on the junior leagues, but that’s not the rule, he said. Typically, the youngsters who had the most practice develop into the better players.

But the bottom line is, the “goal for parents shouldn’t be getting the kids ready for the NHL,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to put kids into the professional ranks.” It’s about education.

“High school hockey is education based, and the elite programs are not about education,” he said. “They’re about playing hockey.”

And in reality, although Rhode Island has produced a lot of good hockey players, few of them ever made it to an NHL team. Relatively few even make it to a Division-I college team. But unfortunately, the rise of the elite programs is sending a message: If you don’t have the money and you’re not good enough, you can’t play.

The expense for the hockey program is the top issue athletic directors want to discuss, he said, because the schools are looking at expenses between $8,000 and $20,000 just to pay for practice time at the ice rink. (The variation depends on whether the school has access to a community rink or has to pay “top dollar” through a private outfit, he said.)

The RIIL helps with the actual game expenses, he said. The schools pay $2,000 a season for the boys and $1,400 for the girls.

“We’re the only state in the U.S. that controls and pays for high school hockey games,” Mezzanonte said. The league charges admission and keeps the gate profits, he said.

“We pay for officials, rinks, ice, trainers, police, fire, ticket takers,” he said; and without the league’s involvement, hockey programs would cost the schools a lot more.

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