BY DON SEIFFERT
Photos by Kelly MacDonald
Seven days a week, Beth Roche can be found working on her laptop at a picnic table in the sitting area of Veteran’s Memorial Rink (570 Somerville Ave.), sounds of slap shots and stick checks echoing through the doors.
All three of her boys – ages 7, 11 and 12 – play youth hockey on two teams each: for Somerville Youth Hockey Association (SYHA), and for a select team. That means hours of rink time every day, but Roche doesn’t mind. With three boys in the house, what else are you going to do?
“Either we’re here, or they’re home killing each other,” she says.
Similarly, Ron Bonney helps coach both his sons’ SYHA teams, and his business – Bonney Automotive (640
Boston Ave.) – is one of SYHA’s sponsors. But his older son also plays for a select club that he has helped coach. For Bonney, involvement with both the town and select programs is simply a matter of participating in the game the family loves as much as possible. “My cousins and I all grew up in youth hockey,” he says. Hockey overload also has social appeal. Out of both programs, the Bonneys have developed close friendships and ties to their community that they would not have otherwise formed.
These Somerville families have seen the best that both town and select hockey have to offer. In the regional youth hockey community, however, the programs find themselves on opposite ends of the ice.
Across the state, more and more families are participating in so-called select hockey clubs, but unlike the Roches and the Bonneys, many are doing so at the expense town programs. Select teams have been criticized as money-makers that take good players away from town leagues, compete for valuable ice time, and encourage an overly-competitive environment at the youngest levels. Those criticisms have gotten louder in the past couple years, ever since USA Hockey lifted a ban on kids under 10 joining select leagues unless they also play for a community-based one. The change has effectively intensified an already contentious relationship.
“The select teams aren’t going away,” says Chuck Allen, the boys’ hockey coach at Somerville High School. “Do I think it’s going to affect youth hockey in the long term? Yes.”
SYHA officials say they’ve been lucky to avoid the declining participation and consolidation that’s plagued some Boston-area town programs as select programs grow. President Jill Guardia says membership hovered around 80 until recently. This year, there are 110 players.
While that’s partly the effect of the Boston Bruins winning the Stanley Cup last year – “You’ll probably find that in hockey leagues across the state,” she says – Guardia credits SYHA’s low cost and excitement for the new outdoor ice rink being built at Veteran’s Memorial as reasons for the boom. SYHA costs just $900 a year for most kids, compared to $1,200 to $1,400 or more for some surrounding towns, and $2,500 to $3,500 for select clubs.
Guardia, whose son plays for both SYHA and a private club, says there are both good and bad aspects of select leagues. She says that unlike in surrounding towns, getting sufficient rink time to practice has not been a problem because she has a good relationship with the major select club in town, the Boston Stars, and its president, Igor Gratchev.
“On paper, we’re competing for the same ice… but he runs his program, and we run ours,” she says. “He’s grown the program fast…. It’s something we have to be observant of to make sure we don’t get pushed out.”
Gratchev, a former pro hockey player from Russia who founded both the Stars and Igor Hockey, declined to comment for this article.
George Scarpelli, program developer with Somerville’s Recreation Department, agrees that allocating ice time hasn’t been a problem for the past year since the city took over control of Veteran’s Memorial. If there is a conflict between SYHA and the Stars, he says the city will usually side with the community league. Ice time issues figure to be even more rare once the new rink is completed. Both leagues pay the same price for ice time – $175 per hour, or less than half the cost of adult leagues.
Brian O’Donovan, vice president of SYHA and board member of the Greater Boston Youth Hockey League (GBL), says that the drain due to select teams has indeed hurt town programs. Even in Somerville, the number of players was low enough five years ago to spark discussions about combining with clubs in Cambridge or Charlestown, says O’Donovan. And though SYHA seems healthy today, USA Hockey’s decision to allow younger kids to play in select leagues has had an effect at the younger levels, which could hurt the program at large in the future.
“What’s happened in the past two years is now kids are leaving the Mite and Squirt programs [which are for players under 10], and it has hurt our numbers,” he says.
Bonney, however, said he thinks parents are still more likely to register their youngest players with town programs first, where they can learn the game. “[Town] programs will always survive,” he says. “It’s the best way to get introduced to the sport.” He likens a player moving to a select club to a Somerville Public Schools student leaving for a private school.
Another effect of select leagues is that town-based teams can’t always count on having its best players at every game. O’Donovan, a firefighter whose own kids play in both the town league and a select league, says that if there’s a scheduling conflict, many parents will choose the more expensive select league games, leaving town teams in limbo.
“We play a lot against South Boston and Charlestown Leagues,” he says. “We’ll beat them some weeks 7-1, and then other weeks, they’ll beat us 8-2.”
Allen, the high school coach, goes so far as to say that USA Hockey – the national organization which makes the rules – is “trying to ruin town hockey” with the most recent rule change. He says select teams have turned youth hockey into a business, taking the best players away from community-based leagues.
At least for now, SYHA seems to be holding its own. Bonney, for one, chooses to minimize the conflict. Instead, he focuses on those whom both programs primarily exist to serve: the kids. “Either way,” he says, “at a very young age kids are getting introduced to a very positive activity that keeps them healthy and active.”