WOONSOCKET — John Flynn remembers growing up in the 1970s when Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins transformed New England hockey, turning youngsters all over the region into hockey players eager to lace on skates and participate in the sport.
Times have changed in recent years as a sagging economy has cut into the pool of youths capable of playing the sport, which involves financial outlays by parents for skates, sticks and other equipment.
Flynn thinks the Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup last June for the first time since 1972, can trigger a new resurgence of interest in hockey among youngsters in Woonsocket.
“I think the same thing can happen again in Woonsocket now that the Bruins have won another Stanley Cup,” Flynn was saying earlier this week. “We need to get kids out skating again. My son Jonathan, who is one of the captains of the Woonsocket High team this year, came to me recently and said if the program doesn’t get more players, his younger brother Sean, who is in sixth grade, might not have a high school team to try out for in a few years.”
That conversation got Flynn thinking about how to revive interest in the sport among city youths.
“I went to the Mayor’s office and talked to them about a plan to have a group of volunteers offer free skating lessons every weekend at River Island Park,” Flynn said. “They agreed to our plan. We will supply volunteers to teach youngsters how to skate. Once the weather changes and the ice at the park is ready for skating, we will begin holding free skating lessons from 10 a.m. until noon every Saturday and Sunday through the winter.”
Mayor Leo Fontaine is on board with the program.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said on Wednesday. “Ice hockey has had such a great tradition in Woonsocket. Everybody knows about Mount St. Charles. The city itself has always had a strong French-Canadian heritage that gave us good hockey players and ice skaters. There used to be skating rinks at Bernon Park and Cass Park in the old days. The city would just set up boards and flood the rinks once it was cold enough for freeze the ponds. Eventually, Cass Park was shut down. The city has put its focus in recent years on trying to maintain the ice surface at River Island Park.”
This month’s warm weather has slowed down the process of turning water into ice at River Island Park.
“We’re hoping to do it quickly once the weather gets colder,” Fontaine admitted. “The cost of maintaining the ice comes from sponsors and contributions from around the city. Last year, we had CDM, an engineering firm in Woonsocket, as a sponsor along with Veolia Water. This year, CDM is our only confirmed sponsor so far but we are still hoping for more businesses and individuals to come and help out.
“The cost of maintaining the ice has dropped in recent years,” Fontaine added. “Our Public Works Department has been able to maintain the ice during the course of regular work schedules. The sponsors have been covering the cost of Freon and refrigeration services. Opening and maintaining the ice at River Island Park turns out to be a very nice thing that does not cost the taxpayers any money.”
The Woonsocket High School ice hockey team, which was still competitive in 2010 when the varsity compiled a 13-3-2 record in league play, has lost a solid core group of players to graduation since then. The 2010-11 campaign ended with just one victory and a dwindling supply of players coming up through the middle schools that portended a bleak future for hockey at the city’s public high school.
The program nearly went under last May before athletic director George Nasuti issued a public plea for help through this newspaper. Former WHS hockey player Nathan Arruda volunteered to become head coach and 20 players, many of them inexperienced in competitive hockey, came out for the team. Woonsocket lost its first two games last weekend by a combined score of 23-0 but Arruda is hopeful that his youthful team will become competitive at some point later this season.
“This is definitely a tough time for youth sports in the city,” said Arruda, a 2002 WHS graduate and four-year hockey player for his alma mater. “The weak economy has hurt a lot of families. A lot of kids don’t get any ice time when they are young. Maybe this new skating program at the park will get more kids out on the ice, and back into hockey. We need to develop the game again at the grass roots.”
Flynn agrees with the head coach.
“We want to re-seed the program,” Flynn said. “Woonsocket used to be a thriving hockey city. The high school team was very competitive for many years. Just the way Bobby Orr turned hockey upside down back in his day, I think this current Bruins team can revive interest among youngsters. And with the help of the city and our volunteers, we can turn River Island Park’s ice into a place where kids can learn how to play the game.”