Youth-hockey leader relishes his new role

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

January 05, 2003|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

WHETHER YOU'RE from snow-and-ice country or not, it's hard to escape hockey these days. The sport's like kudzu, in a sense, spreading inexorably wherever it touches, including the South.

Which brings us to the Howard County Youth Hockey Club, also known as the Huskies, which has a new president this season. He is a former University of Virginia football player who learned the winter game in Philadelphia as a kid.

His name is Bob Buonato, manager of a stock brokerage branch in Ellicott City, father of two sons who play and one daughter who tried but now swims, and one of the adult leaders for the Huskies. He succeeds Bob Falk, who had been president for four years and is now club treasurer.

"I was more drafted than anything," Buonato said of his ascendancy to the growing club's top spot. But he said he relishes the chance to give back to sports, which meant so much to him as a teen-ager, as well as working with kids. He recalled several coaches being formative in his life, and he hopes he might have a similar impact.

Talk with him a few minutes, and you understand why the sport is spreading and growing.

He likes, for example, that the Huskies are part of youth hockey's Southeastern District, which he said has become the fastest-growing region for the sport in the nation. That region extends from Maryland to Florida and as far west as Tennessee. Locally, that growth is particularly being experienced in Northern Virginia, where the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, to which the Huskies belong, is adding clubs.

Why such growth in the warm South?

"Wayne Gretzky," is Buonato's reply. The Canadian Hall of Famer and part-owner of a National Hockey League franchise in Phoenix, who first made his name with the Edmonton Oilers, "changed the sport forever" when he was traded to Los Angeles. Immediately, the scoring machine turned that warm-weather city into at least an NHL money-maker.

That circumstance proved to all the doubters that the action-packed sport would sell in areas where ice is something for drinks, not for skating. And, Buonato continued, the growth also continues because of recent "technology that has made it possible to have ice in indoor arenas virtually year-round."

He sees a tie-in with the ascendancy of in-line hockey, too - the solid-ground version of hockey, similar in concept but different in rules, provides an added point of entry as well as a place to hone skills.

Any new goals for a new president?

Buonato has several. One is skill development for his club's players, which apparently is something of a buzz phrase in youth hockey these days.

The main feature on this page today is about an effort by the Huskies to improve skills at a young age. But as an aside, unrelated to Buonato and the Huskies, it strikes us as odd that hockey is just catching on organizationally to the concept that young beginners learn best by playing in small-sided games with kid-size equipment.

Gads, go check out any tee-ball, seven-a-side soccer game, or low-rim basketball game if you need examples of how young kids can grow and blossom when nurtured in a kid-scale game.

Another Buonato goal would be developing a Huskies alumni group, given that the club has been around long enough to have players old enough to begin coaching in it.

And a third would be to talk up another ice rink for this part of Maryland.

"The demand is there," Buonato said, but not just among would-be hockey players. He notes competition for ice time - which is expensive at the two primary rinks that service Howard County, one in Columbia and the other just over the Prince George's County line in greater Laurel - from figure skating and recreational skating.

Hey, youth basketball followers. Anybody or program out there you'd like others to know about? Give us a hint. Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunder land@baltsun.com.

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