The Mighty Mites

Hockey’s youngest competitors hit the ice to learn the game and be part of a team – and well sometimes, they just hit the ice.

The ice is slippery tonight!” Five-year-old Veronica Wendt is trying to skate with the covers still on her skate blades, and thus can’t stand up on the ice. With help from her dad, the problem is fixed, and she glides off into practice. As much as hockey for five- to eight-year-olds resembles the adult game, there’s a certain humorous, adorable factor that the big guys can’t match. I can’t imagine Pittsburgh Penguins phenom Sidney Crosby lying down on the ice in the middle of a shift, or new Bruins goalie Manny Fernandez pausing during practice to pick his nose.

Travis Thurber, parent of six-year-old Cabot, coaches these distractible skaters, trying to strike a fine balance between serious teaching and having fun. He notes that a youth coach’s first job is to prepare each kid for the next level of hockey, and as the coach at the lowest rung of competitive hockey, his frequent smiles and laughs belie a tough task. “The range of teaching is huge,” he says, but as a coach he has goals to accomplish, and to do that he must “keep the goal-accomplishing fun.”

It certainly looks like fun, with Travis and his assistants – primarily players’ parents – enjoying themselves at least as much as their charges. They bellow good-naturedly at loafers, and hoot with glee when a youngster scores a goal during a scrimmage. The kids, Travis says, display a range of commitment and ability to pay attention, evident as Sean Hegarty and Gino Chick hack at each other with their sawed-off sticks while the coaches demonstrate a drill. Still, when the whistle is blown, the kids gamely skate, and fall, more or less as the drill was drawn up – falling safely is the first drill the kids learn.

The season runs from mid-September through the end of March, three days a week. At a recent practice, the kids split into two teams for a relay race, each using one of Travis’s gloves as a baton. The teams, evenly matched, cheer each of their skaters heartily, since the losers will have to do ten push-ups. Shay Sullivan breezes the sixty or so feet out to the blue line and back, but Gino gives so much effort that he crosses the end line in midair before crumpling to the ice. While Addie Hayman clutches the coach’s glove in both arms like a life preserver, Sean and Gino (unfazed by his tumble) renew their skirmish with some giggle-fueled shoving, and Gino falls again. Auguste Pizzano crosses the line, bumping his teammates and causing a domino effect that brings three skaters down.

After the winners of the relay gloat and the losers do their push-ups, the practice ends in a scrimmage. The scrimmages are terrific entertainment, as the cluster of kids around the puck migrates from end to end, often leaving children sprawled in its wake. Travis notes approvingly that the cluster indicates the kids are “hungry for the puck,” and mentions that positioning isn’t introduced until Squirts, the next step up from Mites. Occasionally a skater will break free of the morass long enough to get a shot on goal. Wilson Slayton glides free for a shot that is turned aside by goalie Zach Fullin, but Kyle Ribeiro pokes home the rebound.

As the kids are zipping around the ice with varying degrees of stability, their parents huddle in the warm lobby, discussing fundraising and volunteering in support of Martha’s Vineyard Youth Hockey, strategizing about calendar and wreath sales, casino night, a silent auction, and bottle and can returns at Al’s Package Store. While the coaches stress the commitment the kids must show, hockey is a commitment for the parents too. Luis and Ashley Figueroa of Oak Bluffs, Alex’s parents, mention that when their older son Aaron travels off-Island to games, they’re on the road from 9:30 to 5:45. But they see hockey not only as an outlet that keeps the boys busy through the long winter, but as a way to teach responsibility and discipline that “sets them up for success” later in life.

The door opens to let the Zamboni on to resurface the ice, and the players file off into the locker room; as he exits, the irrepressible Gino takes one last opportunity to fall to the ice.

While the on-ice skills vary, the Mites already have locker-room banter down, animatedly breaking down the fifty-minute practice’s action a bit while parents help them peel off their gear. One player announces “my butt’s sweaty,” and soon the talk drifts off into fishing stories. It is Derby season after all.

Asked what they like about playing hockey, Alex Figueroa says he likes to go fast. “I’m the fastest,” he notes without a trace of false humility, and he did appear to be pretty quick; in fact, Alex and Shay Sullivan are bumped up to Squirts a few weeks later. Veronica, known as “V” to her teammates, says she enjoys the games, while Ian Trance claims to like the drills. Cathal Robinson says he looks forward to traveling (perhaps unaware that the Mites will not travel much); when asked his name he stumbles a bit, admitting he’s “never been interviewed before.” Assured he’s doing fine, Cathal warms to the task, relating sometimes hard-to-follow anecdotes about his experience as a Mite. Asked what he doesn’t like, he scrunches up his freckled nose and laments how “the skates hurt my feet,” displaying a picked-at blister to prove his point.

Cabot Thurber notes the toughest part is “getting it in the goal.” But Sean Hegarty is already looking ahead, literally hopping with anticipation: “Squirts is awesome! You get to check!” Cabot politely corrects him that checking begins in PeeWees, the level after Squirts. Sean seems undeterred.

Zachary Fullin states immediately that he likes the “great coaches.” Universally, the first thing all the kids mention is how much they like the coaches. Russ Wendt of Oak Bluffs, V’s father, theorizes that “kids burn out on parents,” and hockey represents an escape for the kids since most of the parents aren’t on the ice. Probably true, but even Cabot says right away that “my dad is the coach, so I like that.”

While Travis and the other coaching parents enjoy bonding and having fun with the kids, Travis also stresses the serious side of the game, noting that hockey teaches self-discipline, focus, confidence, and teamwork. He also mentions, as do several parents, that knowing that their kids are in a safe and friendly environment is important, as is getting kids from different towns together socially. The sixteen Mites hail from all three down-Island towns and West Tisbury, where twenty-nine-year-old Travis – a landscaper and farmer; coaching is volunteer work – lives at Breezy Pines Farm. Travis himself was actually a Mite over twenty years ago, and he points out that he still sees those teammates every day. Hockey is deeply woven into the fabric of Island life.

Of course Travis, an Island native, played Mites with sixty other kids, a number that’s dwindled to sixteen or so this year, even as the Island’s year-round population continues to grow. While the numbers tend to be cyclical, newcomers to the Island seem to be harder to get involved in hockey, since they haven’t been part of the hockey family on the Island. Travis guesses that 90 percent of the kids he coaches have parents or siblings who’ve played. V, for example, watched an older cousin play, and became enamored of the equipment and uniforms, according to Russ.

Hockey is also an expensive proposition, what with ice time and uniforms, entailing $500 for Mites and up to $1,500 in fees for upper-level teams that travel. This doesn’t include equipment, and according to Travis, these fees don’t even cover the costs of the youth hockey program. Despite this, the program makes every effort to help those who may need assistance with scholarships and discount equipment.

Costs and commitment aside, hockey, whether at the Mites level or even in an adult league, is “addictive” according to Travis. “The atmosphere at the rink is a different world. Even in the middle of summer, you walk into this ice-cold place, with the echo…” Lucky he likes it, since he’s at the rink, coaching or playing, five or six times a week.

Outside the locker room, parents shepherd their players home for dinner, walking slowly as Mites insist on dragging equipment bags that are bigger than they are. One exuberant youngster swings a stick carelessly and is sharply rebuked while tears briefly flow from the unintended victim. Another lesson learned at Mites hockey.