The Puck Stops Here

Forget what you know about hockey, all those reports of bruising hits and displaced teeth, unruly fans and season-stopping strikes. That stuff happens at the professional level, among men who play the sport because they’re paid to, because it’s their job. The game in its purest form involves genuine team spirit, good sportsmanship and the notion of having fun; it’s a healthy competition that bears about as much resemblance to the National Hockey League as ballet does to boxing. To experience the beauty of the sport, and to see tomorrow’s possible stars today, you don’t need to travel all the way to Ottawa — or even Bridgeport. No, the nail-biting excitement of breakaways, saves and shots on goal is taking place right here in Darien, where children as young as three years old are skating their hearts out at the town rink.

Children as young as three? Well, yes, some of the kids playing these days have almost literally stepped from their cribs to the rink. You’ll find them, along with their older brothers and sisters, launching from bed at five in the morning on most weekends, putting on their pads, lacing up their blades and skating out onto the ice, helping to make hockey one of the hottest winter sports in the region.

Five years ago herbie hazelton was one of those toddlers. Within months of moving to town, his parents, Barb and David, signed him up to play hockey. Not because they grew up gung ho for the sport themselves — they didn’t; neither had ever played it before — but rather for the simple reason that it was the only athletic activity offered by the YMCA at that time for three-year-olds. “He loved it,” David says, “That’s how he learned to skate.” And Herbie was far from the youngest on the ice: “There were kids out there who were eighteen months old, who really couldn’t walk, and they were skating,” Barb notes.

What does Herbie, now nearly eight, enjoy most about the game? “Skating fast,” he replies without a moment’s hesitation. Showing the traits of a real team player, his preferred position is defenseman, for one reason: “I like to pass the puck to people, and then we can score a lot of goals.” His brother Hunter, who is nearly six, enjoys the practice drills, especially those that involve jumping over sticks on the ice. Asked what he likes least about hockey, he responds, “Using the whole rink for playing games, because it’s too big.” Nonetheless, like most kids his age, Hunter imagines playing at the professional level. “Probably when I’m thirteen,” he says.

Orange cones, similar to those used along roadsides, are placed in the rink to help the littlest players adapt to the ice and develop their balance. Like training wheels on a bicycle, these crutches, which the rookies can grab onto and move from line to line of the playing area, are discarded as they gain confidence and skills. From the Rising Stars, a program provided by the Darien Rink for fledgling skaters, players usually progress to the Darien Youth Hockey Association, which offers a number of divisions, ranging, in ascending order of skill level, from Mites and Squirts to Senior Minor and Major, all of which fall in the House league and play locally or at Stamford Twin Rinks. Its Travel league, which tends to be more competitive, also has several divisions, including Bantams, PeeWees and Squirts, with games staged all over New England.

Allison McDermott has two boys, Riggs, nine, and Quentin, seven, in House, and a third, Bennett, five, with the Rising Stars. There is not much physical contact at their levels of play, she observes, unlike what takes place among opponents in the older age groups. Each team has three lines, and “the House league is really good about matching them up in a way that’s age and ability appropriate,” she says. That’s because the emphasis is less on winning than teaching the kids the basics of the game. “And to have fun while doing it,” she adds.

That certainly comes across in talking with the three McDermott offspring, all of whom harbor the fantasy of skating someday for the New York Rangers. For Riggs, who also plays football and baseball, hockey is his premier sport because of how quickly he can move on the ice. Just the act of putting on the uniform and pads gives Bennett pleasure, and he also gets a kick out of “tummy slides,” a drill in which players practice sliding across the ice to reach a moving puck. The only downside of the game as far as Quentin is concerned is when he gets sent to the penalty box for an infraction.

“There’s a little more emphasis on fun, rather than having to win” at the lower tiers, notes Sue Lue, who has two children enrolled in the sport. Most parents laud the coaches for creating a lighter atmosphere, in part by rotating the kids from one slot to another — center, right and left wing, defenseman and goaltender — during their early years of play. This gives all participants an opportunity to experience every
facet of the game while still honing their skills.

For the time being, goaltender is the preferred position of Derek Lue, age six. “That’s the worst, for parents,” Sue says in an aside, noting that it’s difficult to watch opponents firing slap shots at her son. Derek’s sister Nicole, on the other hand, prefers to play forward. “Not center,” she adds quickly, “because you have to be all over the place, and I get tired very easily.” Last season this nine-year-old excelled at defense, but having just moved up a level, to Mid-Fairfield Travel, she now finds that it, too, demands a lot of her energy. Her favorite sport, tennis, is less fatiguing, “and following the ball is good for your eyes,” she believes. And yet she doesn’t dismiss the idea of playing hockey professionally. “I’m still thinking about it,” Nicole says.

That Nicole brandishes a hockey stick at all is something of an accident, according to her mother. “When she was little I took her for skating lessons at the Darien Rink and just assumed she’d go into figure skating,” Sue recalls. “And just as she was getting off the ice, a hockey team went on. She pointed to them and said, ‘I want to do that.’ So I put her in one of the week-long summer camps, thinking she wouldn’t like it after that, and she loved it.”

Figure skating is also how Amy Johnson started her daughter Emily in the rink. By the time her child turned eight, though, Amy realized that she was not cut out for ice dancing. “She wasn’t one of those little skinny girls who is able to jump in the air and do twirls and flips,” Amy says. “It became obvious that it would be a good idea to switch her over to hockey.” Emily, now sixteen, currently plays with the Polar Bears in the Travel league.

Catherine Arrix, six, has indicated to her parents, Margaret and Bob, that she wants to learn figure skating. “I think she likes the pretty costumes,” observes Margaret. That’s in marked contrast to Catherine’s older siblings, Robbie and Julia, both nine, who were determined from the outset to play hockey. Teammates and three-year veterans, the Arrix twins currently play on a House squad. “I like scoring goals and working with the team,” says Robbie, while admitting that it hurts to get hit by the puck. Julia, on the other hand, has a preference for protecting the crease. What is it about being goaltender that appeals to her? “You get to save shots, and that’s fun,” she says.

There may be some grizzled old-timers around town who grumble about girls being involved in a so-called man’s sport, but like politicians who don’t take PAC money, they are a rare breed. Bob Arrix grew up playing the game at the Winter Club in New Canaan; he sees many more kids starting out in hockey, and at an increasingly younger age, than when he was a youth. “And it’s much more coed, which is great,” he says, voicing a popular sentiment.

Even so, that hockey is a contact sport, one notorious for rough play, is a fact parents are aware of whenever their child skates onto the ice. True, there’s no checking or hitting at the lower levels, but that hardly renders the pastime risk-free. Whenever it is Derek Lue’s turn in front of the net, for instance, his father, Chris, concedes that it is hard to watch. “You’ve got all the players taking hard shots on the goalie and you never know where the puck is going to hit,” he frets. As for Nicole, because she’s on a boys’ team, “we bought everything humanly possible to protect her,” Sue states.

Young Julia Arrix lost some ice time recently because she broke her collarbone — not playing hockey, as one might think, but in soccer, her autumn sport. Indeed, because rink rats are so heavily padded, many parents perceive hockey as among the safer sports. “I’ve heard of a lot more kids getting injured playing football than hockey,” Amy Johnson confirms. Even so, with four children committed to the sport, and three of them competing at a level that involves checking, she feels uneasy whenever one of them takes a punishing hit. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me,” she admits.

Elizabeth Foresta empathizes with that. When her son Michael, now fourteen, graduated to PeeWees a few years ago, she was appalled at the hitting. Now that he is a defenseman in the Bantam division, she is more accustomed to the demands of the sport. “And in my head I’m telling him, ‘take the body rather than the puck,’” Elizabeth relates. “It’s frightening, but it’s just how the game is played.” Several of Michael’s teammates have been injured this season, including one who is out with a broken collarbone and another who broke an elbow, but most of those injuries were incurred in practice sessions. “The game is definitely much more aggressive each year they’re in,” she says.

Which is not to suggest that hockey is without its health benefits. On the contrary Chris Lue believes that from a cardiovascular perspective, no other sport can approach it. “They probably burn fewer calories per game in soccer and football,” he suggests. “Every six-year-old comes off the ice winded.” Amy Johnson agrees. “I feel like we’re setting a pattern of exercise as a fundamental part of their lives, and they’ll take that into adulthood,” she says.

Many children will also absorb the concepts that hard work pays off and teamwork is essential to success — truisms that are reinforced through countless hours of practice. And as an added bonus, they are making friends who will stick with them throughout their years in Darien. “Probably no more than 5 or 10 percent of the kids their age play hockey,” Chris Lue says. “So they realize it’s something special,” which creates an instant connection among participants.

And not just among the players. Parents, too, relate in part because they encounter one another so frequently at practices and during games. Amy Johnson sees a lot of camaraderie among the adults. “My husband and I have met some incredibly wonderful people” through hockey. As the years have passed, she feels that many of them have become a kind of extended family. “You come to love all those kids as you see them grow and mature.”

Hockey families relate to one another because of the tremendous demand the sport places on their time. With multiple practices weekly, and most games scheduled for six or seven o’clock in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays, many parents confess that the commitment runs them a bit ragged on occasion. The Hazelton boys are on the ice four times a week, and prior to each session Barb allows an extra forty-five minutes just to help them get their equipment on. “Airing it out afterwards is a big part of the process, too,” she laughs.

With three lads playing Travel hockey, Elizabeth Foresta finds it challenging to keep up. “Sometimes I’ll look at my husband, Stephen, on a Sunday night and say, ‘where have you been all weekend?’” she relates. Amy Johnson shares that feeling. With four of her six children enrolled in the sport, she and her husband have their hands full seeing to it that each child’s needs are met. “A lot of weekends we go in opposite directions,” Amy states. “But we always try to take time either Friday or Saturday night to go out to dinner, just the two of us.”

If there is a positive side to such time considerations, it is that once the skaters reach a certain age, many parents feel comfortable about dropping them off at practice instead of sitting through the entire workout. And unlike baseball or tennis, hockey is a timed sport, with a clock limiting how long the competition will run. “That’s a good thing about it, games are only an hour long — you’re in and out,” Elizabeth Foresta says. “At swim meets, you have to be there for three or four hours.” That said, parents with two or three (or more) children skating in different games require the agility of jugglers to manage their date books. On
a recent Saturday, for example, Chris Lue left his house at 8 a.m. to drive Nicole to a game near Hartford. By 5 p.m. he was at the Darien Rink, where Derek was suiting up. “That’s a typical weekend, being in hockey rinks all day,” Chris comments. He has no complaints, however. “It’s one of those sports you become addicted to when you see the dedication of the kids and how much they love it.”

One aspect of the game some parents are less enamored of is its considerable financial cost. “People don’t realize that that commitment is huge,” Elizabeth Foresta says. She calculates that with the price of equipment, skates, the fees for tournaments and ice time, getting her kids onto the rink runs around $15,000 a year. “But they grow up so fast,” she says, “and when I see that I have a child going into high school next year, I realize there are so few years that we can actually do this for them and spend this time with them.”

Amy Johnson agrees: “My daughter is a junior in high school and all of a sudden I’m realizing how quickly this is all going by. So now I can appreciate my younger kids doing this, because I know it’s fleeting; they will soon be gone out of my life. It makes it that much more enjoyable.”

It probably helps to keep that notion in mind as these dedicated mothers and fathers awaken before dawn on the weekends to shuttle their kids to the rink. “Those 5:55 games are tough,” Bob Arrix acknowledges. “Everybody gets out of bed at 5 a.m., and you come home at seven  o’clock hoping for a nap in the afternoon.” There is some solace to be had, naturally, from the presence on the bleachers  of one’s peers who had to rise at the same hour. “You have that bond with those other parents,” David Hazelton says, noting that he’s made a number of lasting friendships as a hockey dad.

Much of that rapport was established during evening practices at Stamford’s Twin Rinks. With a restaurant overlooking the ice, parents tend to hang out there together, nursing beers over platters of wings. “Most of the people we’ve met in town through sharing a table and watching our sons,” Hazelton insists. His wife, Barb, puts it more succinctly: “Friday nights at the hockey rink are a blast.”

No doubt that is just one reason why, as the season comes to a close at the end of March, Barb’s sense of relief is tempered by an air of vacancy. “There’s sort of a hole when hockey’s over,” she says. That feeling probably won’t last long, though. Along with tulips and daffodils, April brings the return of lacrosse.

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