Youths, parents are sold on ice Youth hockey: It's booming across much of the United States. The number of registered teams rose 64 percent nationally during the past five seasons.

January 03, 1996|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF

Standing in the U.S. Naval Academy's cold ice rink at 6:30 a.m., a steaming cup of coffee in his hand and a scarf around his neck, Jim Smith explains that there is nothing unusual about the Chesapeake Bay Chiefs Pee Wee A team's starting its game before the sun comes up.

"We're used to it by now -- this is our seventh year" in youth hockey, Mr. Smith said. "There have been times when we've had to get up at 4 a.m. You do what you have to do when the ice is available."

Mr. Smith and his wife, Linda, set two alarm clocks to make sure they were awake by 5:15 a.m. Thursday.

The Smiths, of Broadleaf Court in Millersville, had to deliver their son, Mike, 12, a left winger for the Chiefs, to Dahlgren Hall, the academy's rink, by 6:30 a.m. to get into uniform. Game time: 7 a.m.

For many parents and their children involved in hockey, such hours are a rite of passage. With a nationwide increase in the number of youth hockey teams and a scarcity of rinks, games and practices often begin before dawn. Older children frequently play or practice late in the evening and sometimes don't get home until midnight.

And as if the odd hours weren't enough for parents to endure, youth hockey is expensive.

It can cost $500 or more to outfit a child with skates and sticks, elbow and shin pads, a helmet and other equipment. Registration fees, which cover the costs of ice time for practices and games, cost anywhere from $325 to more than $800 a season per child.

Many teams play all of their games locally. But some, such as the Chiefs, take frequent weekend trips to nearby states to play games, often staying overnight.

"Outsiders look at us and probably think we're crazy hockey parents getting up at those hours and spending all that money," Mr. Smith said. But, he said, "It's worth every penny."

Mr. Smith, a salesman for a chemical distributor, estimates that he spends about $2,500 a year on equipment, registration fees and travel for Mike to play hockey.

Another parent, Janice James of Severna Park, estimates that she and her husband spend $7,000 to $8,000 annually on hockey for their three sons.

By all accounts, youth hockey is booming in Maryland and across much of the United States. The number of teams registered with USA Hockey, the sport's governing body in this country, rose 64 percent nationally during the past five seasons. In Maryland, 136 teams with an average of 15 players each were registered with USA Hockey during the 1993-1994 season. The number of teams increased 57 percent to 213 teams in the 1994-1995 season. Most of those are youth teams.

The youth hockey boom has been fueled by everything from the in-line skating craze to the Disney movie "The Mighty Ducks."

The youth teams in this area play at rinks such as Benfield Pines Ice Rink in Millersville, Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, the Naval Academy, Columbia Ice Rink, and Northwest Ice Rink and Patterson Park in Baltimore, among others. New rinks are scheduled to open this year in Laurel and Edgewood.

But more rinks than that are needed if the sport of youth hockey can continue to grow.

"We need more rinks desperately," said Jonathan Tyson, president of the Chesapeake Bay Chiefs league in Anne Arundel County, which has about 450 youth hockey players of all ages.

"We're building more rinks, but the demand is backfilling the space," said Bruce Moscoe, a computer specialist from Ellicott City helping to coach local teams.

Parents and children who are planning to take up the game need to understand what they are getting into, said Bill Frye, a hockey coach and father of a 9-year-old boy who plays hockey.

"It's not like being involved with Little League baseball or soccer or basketball," with courts or fields everywhere, Mr. Frye said.

"There's only X number of sheets of ice in the state of Maryland right now. You've got to make do with what you have. If it means playing at 5 or 6 in the morning, you've got to do it."

Mostly, hockey parents need an alarm clock, the willingness to drive long distances on little sleep and a keen sense of humor.

"You get up at 4:30 in the morning and there aren't a whole lot of people out on the road," said Mr. Moscoe, whose two sons and nephew play youth hockey. "We have a standing joke that only hockey players and ax murderers are out at that time."

"It kind of ruins your Friday night," said Jack Nolan, a Columbia engineer who has been involved with youth hockey leagues as a parent and coach for more than a dozen years.

Still, almost everyone involved said hockey is well worth the hardships, as a recent early morning visit to Dahlgren Hall shows.

On this morning, the Chesapeake Bay Chiefs Pee Wee A team, made up of 11- , 12- and 13-year-old players, is scheduled to play at 7 a.m. But a power failure the night before caused a problem with the ice. The Chiefs game is rescheduled for 10:30 a.m. Nobody complains; everyone takes the delay in stride.

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