`Beauty of the game' keeps it thriving at other levels

February 17, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Barely three hours after the National Hockey League's history-making cancellation of its season yesterday, Bill Auerswald was on a cold sheet of ice, putting his own team through its afternoon paces.

"Two laps!" barked the coach, rapping a stick on the blue line at Baltimore's Mount Pleasant Ice Arena as 18 blue-and-gray- clad skaters whizzed past him. "Two laps! Sticks on the ice! Then take a knee, and let's talk."

As hockey coaches go, Auerswald, the top hockey mind at Gilman School, is as detail-oriented as they come, exhorting his players to focus on the little things that translate into intelligent play - things that have helped the Greyhounds to a 7-1-0 league record and a chance at a second straight championship this week.

During a brief break from practice, the NHL's worries seemed the last thing on Auerswald's mind. "Sure, we miss the games," he said. "But the focus belongs on guys like these, who have been coming together and working hard for the love of the game."

As the news from the NHL filtered out yesterday, amateur hockey coaches, players and officials echoed his sentiments. Most seemed far less interested in the squabbles of millionaire pro players and owners than in the fact that the game they love is thriving at just about every other level.

This month, crowds across the Baltimore region - and across the country - will be turning out for playoff and title games at the high school and college levels, not to mention for countless games in recreational leagues that feature players as young as 5 and as old as 85.

Fans may not be able to catch stars like goalie Olaf Kolzig and center Jeff Halpern of the Washington Capitals, but those who love the game can journey to Piney Orchard Ice Rink in Odenton tomorrow to see Gilman defend its Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference title in a game against St. Paul's Crusaders. Or drive a little farther, to West Chester, Pa., to watch Towson University, with its 10-7-2 record, take on Navy (12-7-1) in the Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.

"It's still hockey, and hockey is a great game played by people who have passion," said John Coleman, president of the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, a division of USA Hockey that oversees the sport in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. "These high school and college games will be very competitive and cost next to nothing."

Indeed, sports fans convinced that American hockey is on life support need only talk to Coleman, a longtime hockey dad who, like tens of thousands of grown-ups across the country, donates time to coach, officiate or run leagues so that skaters of all ages can practice their board-bashing craft.

"It's the beauty of the game," he says, "the speed, the up-and-down action, the grace and the passing that sets it apart. And it gets to younger people in different ways. At the younger level, it's the enthusiasm. Obviously, in our area, hockey's not as huge a draw as, say, basketball ... But once we get kids into hockey, we keep them for life."

Over the past decade and a half, that kind of ardor has translated into swelling numbers. In 1991, USA Hockey, which oversees most amateur hockey in the country, listed 195,125 registered players of all ages; last year, it had 449,610. Growth was meteoric in the mid-1990s, and though it has settled in at about 5 percent per year, the picture is rosier than you'd guess from the dour proclamations of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, team owners or players union officials.

The Atlantic district that includes Maryland has been amateur hockey's fastest-growing region in recent years, USA Hockey officials say. Growth has been steady in Baltimore, a city with a storied hockey history - from 1950s high school leagues that packed local rinks to the old minor-league Clippers, Skipjacks and Bandits.

Donna Brust, vice president of Baltimore Youth Hockey, said in her four years on the BYH board, team enrollments have grown annually. Today, the organization comprises 473 players between the ages of 5 and 18, more than 70 volunteer coaches, and countless parents who shepherd young skaters to rinks as near as Baltimore's Northwest and Mount Pleasant and as far away as Virginia Beach, Va.

The absence of NHL play disappointed the kids at first, said Brust, the mother of two young players. "They hated it," she said, "but after time passed, they found other things, like minor-league hockey" in Hershey, Pa., home of the American Hockey League Bears, or college hockey, or "they just plain spend so much time thinking about their own games that ... they couldn't care less."

Her organization operates learn-to-skate clinics, in-house recreational leagues and competitive travel teams in the B, A and AA classifications. "We measure our progress in how accessible we make hockey to the Baltimore community at all levels," she said.

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