SCHENECTADY The Canisius hockey team, making a practice pitstop on its way to play at West Point this weekend, stepped off the Messa Rink ice at Union College on Thursday afternoon, and the Zamboni did its thing.
Then the Guilderland/Mohonasen/Scotia-Glenville hockey team took its turn, and the ongoing cycle began again, the busy Zamboni roaring to life to restore the surface to its pristine state.
The Storm is a team — by its own admission — on thin ice, though.
The numbers don’t lie: In two Capital District High School Hockey League games this season, G/M/S lost to Shenendehowa, 16-0, and to defending state champ Saratoga Springs, 19-2.
Even more relevant is this one: 10, the number of players on the roster for those games, which is the state minimum (nine skaters and a goalie) to put a team out there.
With all of this in mind, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if it’s even worth putting a team on the ice. If you ask the team, though, that’s for other people to think about, because they have a season to play and a program to preserve. As the Storm cling to a team that needed a three-school merger to field enough players, they’re forging ahead with the idea that better things are on the horizon.
“This season isn’t about our win-and-loss record, it’s about improving our skill and also learning life lessons, like coach says, and trying to keep the program alive so that eventually we can get to the point where Shen and Saratoga are,” senior co-captain Tyler Phillips said. “I just look forward to coming back someday and seeing Guilderland win a Section II championship.”
“It’s never doom and gloom with these guys. It really isn’t,” head coach Ed Koivula said. “These kids are playing for a bigger purpose. If they don’t play this year, they won’t have the opportunity to play next year, or their brothers or other kids in the district won’t.
“Because if this dies, then the funding goes.”
The Storm was precariously close to not having a team this year and benefitted from what Koivula called a “perfect storm” of several factors.
It’s not unusual for varsity hockey teams to be merged programs. For one thing, it’s an expensive sport (ice time and equipment, especially) in a time when school budgets everywhere are feeling the crunch.
Five of the 11 teams in the CDHSHL are made up of more than one school. The former Utica Proctor team of Section III, renamed Mohawk Valley, is using players from 10 different schools this year.
Not many years ago, Guilderland had a stand-alone program, while merged teams included Mohonasen/Schalmont and Burnt Hills/Scotia.
Mohonasen joined Guilderland for the 2010-11 season after Schalmont fell off. By then, Scotia had dropped out, and Ballston Spa joined Burnt Hills.
A new athletic director at Scotia who is in favor of hockey, Koivula said, and a decision this year by Section II, the last in the state to do so, to allow three-school mergers opened the door for Guilderland/Mohonasen to add Scotia.
There are only three Scotia players on the roster, but the Storm need every one of them.
As limited as the number of varsity teams is, hockey players at this level have other options, like midget elite club leagues, and many of them in the G/M/S districts have chosen to exercise those.
“We’re in a little bit of a vicious cycle,” Koivula said. “We have kids that leave, and only certain kids choose to be associated with a losing program. So it’s very difficult.
“I’d love to be able to predict the future, but that lies with those kids who have the ability to play, but choose not to.”
That leaves G/M/S in its present incarnation, one that offers Koivula and assistants Andy Cuthbertson and Dan Collins challenges that other coaches don’t have to think about.
Just running a practice requires creativity and compromise; managing a game is even more difficult, because there will always be three periods and no way around the fatigue that inevitably sets in against teams with twice as many players.
“I look down, I swear, some of them are going through the handshake line more than once,” sophomore goalie Timmy Brisley said with a laugh.
“It’s tough when you know you could keep up with these teams if we had a deeper team,” Phillips said. “Our skill level has actually improved from last year, but the numbers are less, so by the time you get to the third period, and these teams are rotating four lines, they have so much rest and we’re pretty much shot.”
Phillips and his teammates aren’t complaining.
It’s natural to assume that there’s a psychological toll, especially for the goalie, after losing by such huge margins, but they said it doesn’t last long, if it happens at all.
“I look at the shots,” Brisley said. “It’s relative. Forty saves [against Shen] isn’t bad.”
“During the game, I don’t let it faze me at all,” Phillips said. “You keep on playing. But then on the car ride home from Saratoga, it kind of hits you, how lopsided it was. You can’t just think about that. You have to think about the adversity we were facing with only 10 players.”
At least G/M/S has the two best teams in the league out of the way.
They know that progress will have to be measured in small, incremental steps; victories will have to be found in places other than the final score.
Phillips pointed out that after Saratoga scored on its first three shots on Tuesday, the Storm played the defending state champs even, 2-2, for the rest of the first period.
“As much as I try not to think about winning — I try to think about competing — I’m trying to win, too,” he said. “That’s just the competitive drive I have. That’s why you play a high school sport, is to win. Or else you could just play intramurals or something.
“There’s just something about a high school game. No matter what the score is, it just feels more significant than any other type of game.”
I hope kids like Phillips and Brisley get a chance to keep playing, which means keeping the whole roster healthy, for one thing.
If I was in their skates, I don’t know that I’d react with the same steadfast aplomb and good humor.
“I have confidence in everybody on the team that we’re all in it together and it builds a bond that we’re all going through this together,” Phillips said. “No one’s going to quit on the team.”
“What we tell them is, don’t let the scores define you,” Koivula said. “It’s not a bad thing if you learn empathy. There’s going to be a time someday when you’re barreling down on someone, and they’re going to be in the same position.”