Throughout the week, the Kiwanis Ice Arena plays host to the Saugerties Hockey League, a “beer league” full of teams sponsored by local businesses. It’s mostly fun and games, laughing and smiling, followed by both teams going out for pizza and a beer.
This was not the scene on a recent weekend (Feb. 28-March 2), when the arena was closed to the public to host the 2014 New York State Amateur Hockey Association High School Club Tournament, the state championship tournament for high school hockey teams not sanctioned by the state’s Public High School Athletics Association.
This is not that kind of hockey. These kids are fast and mean. The puck stays in the air for much longer; the passes are high and hard, and sometimes they even fly out of the rink and come close to breaking the windows of the office that hangs over one side of the ice. Woe to the spectator who glances down at a phone or program during the action – he could end up taking a biscuit to the head.
The crowds are intense. That was clear in the semifinal game between Arlington (the home team for our purposes) and East Islip. Hockey is huge in Long Island, where East Islip is situated, and the contingent of hockey dads at the top of the stands make their presence known.
“HE’S AWF! HE’S AWFSIDES!” they yell after the first Arlington goal of the period. The claim is punctuated by two or three come awns as the play is disrupted and any potential Arlington had to score with their awfsides player is squashed.
What’s astonishing is how on-point these kids are. They cut the ice hard when they skate, kicking up chilly spray when turning hard. Sometimes they leave their feet when they’re trying to bat down a high puck with their gloves and land rather gracefully. They can execute clever not-quite-legal maneuvers, having dealt with referees all their lives. At one point, an East Islip player is knocked down around the goal, and as he rises he hacks at an Arlington player’s blades, knowing that the refs have turned their attention down-ice.
“C’MON DID YOU SEE THAT? YOU’RE NOT LOOKING OUR WAY,” yells an Arlington dad from the other side of the stands.
It’s not just the playing and the cheating that these kids are good at, though. They’ve learned style. After scoring a goal in the tenth minute, an Arlington player executes a kneeling, rock ‘n’ roll floor sweep with his left hand and his teammates trail behind him. It’s fun to watch the goal celebrations, which normally consist of a primal scream, a fist pump, and a mobbing by the scorer’s teammates.
There’s a lot of mobbing today. By the break going into the third period, Arlington is up 3-0. “Arlington’s dominated most of the game,” said East Islip General Manager Joe Mayer. “We didn’t know anything about them coming in. They’re from a different league and we’ve never ever played them before, ever.”
In the downtime, the Long Island hockey dads assemble in the corridors of the Ice Arena and commiserate loudly about the game, and the consensus isn’t good. How can East Islip possibly be dropping this game to an upstate school? They should be ramping up to play St. John the Baptist, this tournament’s alpha dog and their own regional rival, considering that St. John the Baptist is in, of all places, West Islip, a ten-minute drive down the Sunrise Highway.
It’s a heartbreaker, and it’s definitely spurring on what is the most fascinating feature of this game: the wild, kid-on-kid violence.
This is a far cry from Saugerties Hockey League hockey, where a fight can lead to an immediate and lasting suspension, and no one is really interested in doing more damage than necessary to the guy next to them. The most that ever happens there is a shove outside of the crease after a downer of a goal.
Nah. There are for real battles in this one. One East Islip player gets more than ten minutes in the penalty box for picking a fight and throwing his gloves down in disgust after being pulled from the fracas (technical) and jawing with his victim for an extended period (taunting). This is, more or less, the end of his season, though. He can do what he wants.
There are a few other tussles in the last two periods, but there’s only one marquee matchup and it comes at the end of the quarter. Out of nowhere, an East Islip player drops an Arlington Admiral with a jiu-jitsu takedown. It’s hard to make out exactly what’s happening as almost every player piles on to either help diffuse the situation or swing on someone, but one thing is for certain: The East Islip pugilist is throwing punches with both fists. It takes three minutes to sort everything out, and the Greek chorus of dads is watching silently, either quietly praying to the hockey gods for blood or hoping it’s not their kid at the bottom of the pile.
East Islip was sent back to Nassau with a 6-0 loss to end their season. Underdog Arlington headed off to face St. John, which beat the Admirals handily.