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PAWTUCKET â Donât get Ray McGee started when it comes to ice hockey in this city.
âYou know me,â the Shea High athletic director was saying on Wednesday. âI love hockey. Grew up skating on the ponds around town. I coached Tolman in the late 1970s and in the 1980s. We used to play Shea and it was the best ticket in town. They had to lock the doors at Lynch Arena for Shea-Tolman games. We were outdrawing Mount St. Charles. The (Interscholastic) League wanted us to play at Meehan Auditorium so they could make more money on our games with Shea but we would never do it. We owed it to our fans to stay in the city.â
High school hockey in this city has never been the same since Shea High disbanded its program in the late 1980s due to a lack of players.
âIt was a shame,â McGee said. âBut hockey is a different animal than other sports. You can have kids grow up playing sandlot baseball, soccer and football and then try out for the varsity team in high school and succeed. Not in hockey. If you donât start skating at a young age, youâre not just going to start playing hockey well when you get to high school.â
McGee sees Pawtucket and Woonsocket facing similar problems when it comes to sustaining public school hockey programs.
âWeâre in the same boat,â he said. âThe thing I always hated about hockey, as an athletic director, was itâs a sport based on economics. The poor economy is really squeezing the parents, the ones who have to go out and buy skates and sticks when their kids are young and want to learn the game.
âWhen I was a kid, I skated almost every day in the winter at Slater Park,â McGee added. âThe fire department used to flood the little pond (at Marconi Gardens). It would freeze over and you would have a foot or two of ice to skate on. It was very safe. You could go there in the afternoon during the winter and see four or five different hockey games being played. The kids would just cut off different sections of the pond for games.
âAt night, people would come just to skate. The big pond at Slater Park drew a large crowd of people, parents with their children, or people skating alone. Once the pond froze over, the city would plow snow off the ice and make it suitable for skating. The boathouse on the edge of the pond would be open. It had a fireplace and there would be hot chocolate available. People would stay there until 10 in the evening, just skating and talking. It was gorgeous.â
Tolman Highâs varsity program remains competitive in Division III but faces a dwindling numbers problem from year to year.
âWe may only have around 10 returning skaters next year,â said Tolman athletic director John Scanlon. âThis year, we have no freshman players and next year looks the same way. Weâre going to graduate several seniors, and that will get us down to around 10 players next season.â
Tolman lists only 13 players (four seniors) on its team roster filed with the Interscholastic League.
Scanlon said he has talked to hockey parents in town and received a pessimistic message.
âHockey people like our former coach, Tom Vecoli, tell me there are just not that many youngsters in the city who are skating,â Scanlon said. âIt doesnât look good in Pawtucket for the future of ice hockey.â
Tolman has consistently fielded a playoff team over the past decade under Vecoli and current head coach Steve Reynolds. Still, the programâs future seems hazy.
âWeâve had early discussions about going into a Co-Op situation with a school like East Providence, which is geographically close to us and practices at Lynch Arena,â Scanlon admitted. âBut itâs complicated. You canât combine two schools whose male enrollment would exceed the highest male enrollment in the state. That would be a problem for us with East Providence. We would have to get a waiver from the league to be able to merge with them.
âThe Interscholastic League looks at Co-Op programs as a bridge, something to tide a program over when the numbers are down,â Scanlon added. âYou go into it with the hope of eventually getting your numbers back up and regaining your own program. I have been talking to my school principal (Fred Silva) about our hockey program and it will be an ongoing discussion.â
There are already two Co-Op programs in Division III. Johnston/North Providence captured the state title last March after merging their two neighboring programs. West Warwick and Exeter/West Greenwich have also merged.
Two Co-Op squads also exist in Division II. St. Raphael Academy joined up with two other private schools â Wheeler and PCD â to form a potent squad that defeated Ponaganset 12-1 in its season opener. Rogers, Tiverton and Rocky Hill also merged in the southern part of Rhode Island.
Co-Op programs appear to be a temporary solution to a very real problem around the state, a band-aid slapped on a growing wound when stitches or surgery might be a more viable option.