Though it might not seem as popular in our area as it is in other parts of the state, hockey continues to build up in Saugerties thanks to a group of dedicated grownups and an awful lot of eager kids. It’s all happening at the Kiwanis Ice Arena, which has become something of a nerve center for hockey enthusiasts all over the area.
Saugerties Youth Hockey was founded in 1999, growing out of Hurley Rec Hockey, which while occasionally utilizing the rink in the Mid-Hudson Civic Center played most of its games outdoors on a rink two-thirds the size of a regulation one. When the Kiwanis Ice Arena opened its doors in the late Nineties, Hurley Rec abandoned its outdoor rink, eventually morphing into Saugerties Youth Hockey.
Pat Caffrey, the first president of Saugerties Youth Hockey and a lifetime member of the group’s board, attributed the initial success of the activity to the dedication of the local Kiwanis Club, which in addition to its role in opening the rink in the first place has continued financially supporting youth hockey over the years. The group’s current president, Lou Kantaros – also a coach – agreed.
“The Kiwanis organization that runs the rink, they’re selling the ice time to us at a very reasonable rate,” said Kantaros, adding that hockey is not a cheap sport to get into. “If you go to Millbrook, it’s $1200 for a kid to participate. In Saugerties, it’s $625. It’s expensive. It’s a lot more than playing Little League or soccer because you’ve got to buy the equipment.”
Caffrey also credited the town government of Saugerties, particularly supervisor Greg Helsmoortel, buildings and recreation department head Greg Chorvas and arena director Rob Kleemann, as being vital to the health of Saugerties Youth Hockey.
Caffrey said he believed the group’s board has created an excellent structure by which Saugerties Youth Hockey has been allowed to both grow and thrive. “In the early days, there were just a small number of folks running the league who were quickly becoming overwhelmed with the amount of work involved as enrollment increased,” Caffrey said. “The formation and dedication of our board members oversaw our transition to the size and success we’re enjoying today.”
Hockey grows and grows
It’s certainly hard to argue with the numbers. When founded, Saugerties Youth Hockey had around 50 kids between the ages of eight to twelve. Fewer than ten percent were girls.
By 2004, the league had roughly doubled in size, expanding to serve five different age groups between five and 15; the percentage of girls had grown.
Three years later, Saugerties Youth Hockey was up to around 150 kids, with the demand enough to introduce a girls’ program serving 20 to 30 kids and a Learn to Play Hockey program of 40 to 50 kids, 15 to 20 percent of whom were girls.
As 2011 reaches its end, Saugerties Youth Hockey has more than 200 players. The areas showing the most growth are in the youngest and oldest (15-18 years old) age groups.
On Saturday mornings, Kantaros coaches one of the league’s Peewee teams, a group of eleven-and-twelve-year-olds with a competitive edge. Many of the kids started playing the game in 2007, the first year of the Learn to Play Hockey program. That program is generally filled with kids who learn of its existence by word of mouth, as most schools in the area don’t offer ice hockey in gym or as team sports.
“We send about 5000 flyers home every fall to all the kids in their school work,” Kantaros said. “The first Saturday in November is our first learn-to-skate event of the fall. We never know who is going to show up, but every fall for the past five years we’ve had like 70 kids show up. These are new kids each year, and that’s what feeds the program.”
As the current crop of Peewee players grows older, the hope is that they’ll continue playing on Saugerties Youth Hockey teams. But they’re approaching an age where everything can, and sometimes does, change.
“The biggest challenge I see is that when kids reach 13, 14 years old, their interest tends to wane a bit,” said Kantaros. “Their social lives take off and they’re playing school sports and it’s kind of harder to keep them in at that time. But we’ve been able to do it. We’ve got a great program and have some really good teams that compete at a statewide level, and we’ve still kept it affordable.”
Those kids who stick with hockey could eventually find themselves playing for the Mustangs Midget A team for coaches Phil Coratti and Steve Cornacchini. The games are competitive for the travel team, against competition as far north as the Capitol region and as far south as Brooklyn and Long Island.
“We develop some really strong young talent,” said Coratti, who noted that roughly half of the teenagers on his team are from the Saugerties-Kingston area, with others coming from other area communities. “Kids will travel to get to the rink.”
Of the more than 200 kids in Saugerties Youth Hockey, two share the same last name as its president. Will, eleven, and Eve, nine, are Lou Kantaros’ son and daughter. Both have been playing hockey since they were very young.
“I think it’s fun because I just like it because I like the feeling you get when you do something good,” said Eve, the only girl on the Squirt A team. “It’s fun to be playing with other people you know and get along with.”
Will, who plays for his father’s Peewee team, has been skating since the age of four. “My dad put me on skates,” he said. “I skated around and I liked it. I began to play hockey after that.”
For Will, the allure of hockey is perhaps as much about what the sport is than what it isn’t. “It’s a really fast sport, unlike baseball, which is really slow and not all that interesting,” Will said. “Hockey is a really fast-paced sport where anything can happen in a couple of seconds.”
Will likes the new challenge each game presents. “It’s fun because you get to play different teams and they all have their own style of play,” he said. “When you play another team, you have to figure out a way to prevent their strengths and work around it.”
For Lou Kantaros, those sentiments from his own children is not unlike what he hears from other kids in the league. Kids love hockey in spite of the reasons why they might not love hockey.
“We sure time them out”
“It’s funny,” Kantaros said. “It’s cold, and parents come to the rink for Learn to Skate and it’s Saturday morning at 8:15, and it’s kind of tough for people to do. But something happens, and once the kids start getting it and they’re able to play in a game and the parents see their kids playing in a game, they’re bitten by the bug and they love it. It’s great exercise and competition, the kids learn respect for the sport and they learn how to behave on the ice and not get penalties. And we have parents driving 100-200 miles in a weekend.”
Saugerties didn’t become the local mecca of hockey overnight. For Roman Hrycun, it was a long time coming. Hrycun coaches the Peewee B team, Learn to Skate on Saturday mornings and plays on a men’s hockey team on Sundays.
“I practically live over there at the rink,” he said. Hrycun grew up in Niagara Falls and began playing hockey around the age of twelve. After moving to the area in 1970, he found himself traveling great distances for the chance to continue playing hockey.
“I always liked to play hockey and skate, but there was nothing going on here,” he said. “I actually had to go down to Bear Mountain to find ice and anyone playing the game.”
Hockey first arrived in the area, Hrycun figured, in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s when the Mid-Hudson Civic Center installed an ice surface. But while that helped begin the steady climb in the popularity of local hockey, the opening of the Kiwanis Ice Arena was another matter entirely.
“Saugerties is a terrific community that supports sports of all kinds, and the fact that they’ve got a rink in the middle of Cantine Field is wonderful,” Hrycun said. “Saugerties really comes through when it comes to youth sports.”
Will Kantaros expresses it modestly. “I think it’s one of the nicer rinks in all of New York,” he said. “There’s only a couple that are better, and those are prep-school rinks.”
For a lifelong devotee of the ice, Hrycun said he particularly enjoys helping foster a love of skating and hockey in kids at the Kiwanis rink.
“It’s rewarding for me to see these kids, some as young as two, on the ice,” he said. “It’s rewarding to see them go from not being able to stand up on the ice to being able to skate on their own, to skate backwards.”
The older kids get, Hrycun said, the better it is for them to spend their time in a healthy endeavor like hockey. “There’s a lot of discipline,” he said. “And let’s face it: It keeps them off the streets and they’re doing something fun. Kids need something other than video games. This is a physical activity, and we sure tire them out.”