Love Hockey Will Travel

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The Junior Hockey News

COVERING THE WORLD OF JUNIOR HOCKEY

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Love hockey, will travel

Crae Messer really likes to stop shots.

"I don’t really know why I love it so much," Messer said. "A lot of the guys on the team get a good feeling scoring a nice goal, but for me it is making a crazy, last-minute save. That’s what does it for me."

As the starting goalkeeper for the Mount Anthony Union High School boys soccer team the past two years, Messer, a senior, could satisfy that craving relatively easily. A short walk from the locker rooms to the pitch, strap on the heavily padded goalie gloves and it’s game on.

Come winter, though, the lengths Messer takes to stop shots are measured in hours and miles, not minutes and yards, when he suits up for the Troy-Albany Junior Engineers.

Practice? An hour away in Troy, N.Y., twice a week. Home games? Where ice is available in the capital region — on Feb. 4, it was here at the Albany County Hockey Facility. Road games? They require genuine road trips of, generally, three hours or more.

By now, the routine is well-worn for Messer, one of a handful of MAU students who have refused to give up on the game they can’t play in their home town.

Hockey means too much.

"Over the years I’ve dealt with getting a lot of crap for playing hockey, actually," Messer said. "[Classmates think] I should be just another football jock or basketball jock, but it really just comes down to the fact that I love the game and I’m willing to deal with the crap that I’m going to get for it."

NO RINK HERE

With a combined 13 state championships in boys and girls basketball, 15 in Nordic skiing, and a whopping 25 Vermont wrestling titles, Mount Anthony has experienced considerable success during the winter sports season.

But hockey has not been a part of that winning tradition. And without a facility in Bennington — the closest rinks are in Manchester and Williamstown, Mass. — those championship banners are not likely any time soon at Mount Anthony, the largest high school in the state without a hockey team.

"It’s strange that we don’t have one," said MAU junior Jon Polen, who plays for the CP Dynamo in Clifton Park, N.Y.

Opportunities exist for hockey players from Bennington, but they involve varying degrees of distance and financial commitment.

If a school does not offer a sport, the Vermont Principals’ Association allows students to compete at another member school that does. That member-to-member agreement hinges on the guest player not displacing another player at the host school — and even then, schools can decline, according to the VPA.

For MAU hockey players, of which activities director Tim Brown estimated this year there are about five, the closest school with a team is Burr and Burton Academy.

However, BBA has not participated in member-to-member agreements in any sport because of fluctuating numbers and the school’s desire to maximize playing chances for its students, according to athletic director Kathi Bierwirth.

And that reasoning is not unique to Burr and Burton. Last year, a Fair Haven student, Timi Carone, had to travel to Northfield to compete in girls hockey because there was no school closer that would accept her through a member-to-member agreement, according to the Burlington Free Press’ high school sports blog.

After BBA, the next closest options for hockey players from the Bennington area are Brattleboro or Rutland, each roughly an hour away, or travel teams based in the Albany area.

Once players reach a certain caliber, though, the latter becomes the most attractive avenue with more than double the games of a traditional high school schedule.

A BROADER EXPERIENCE

Messer, who has played hockey since he was 4 years old, has grown up adapting to the fact that his town didn’t have a hockey program. It’s provided perspective.

"Looking back on my youth, I’m kind of glad that they don’t," Messer said. "In all my years of playing in Manchester, in Williamstown, in Pittsfield, [in Albany], I’ve learned so many things that if Mount Anthony did have a team probably wouldn’t have happened."

Shortly after a recent 3-3 draw with the Watertown (Conn.) Redwings in a Northeast Midget Hockey League game, that perspective was overshadowed by frustration at an uncharacteristic puck-handling gaffe that led to a goal for the opposition 12 seconds into the game.

"I don’t really have anything to explain why it happened, it was just kind of a fluke on my part," Messer said. "It was not the way I wanted to start the game at all."

It was the only tally Messer, who sports a league-best 0.98 goals against average, allowed in his half of the game.

And the Junior Engineers rallied to hang on to the draw, preserving their unbeaten league record of 19-0-2. As a team, they all pile up the miles just to compete.

"This league is geared more toward kids who don’t have a high school hockey team," coach Ron Morello said. "They know the commitment, if you want to play at this level or any level, you’re going to have to be willing to travel."

Most of the Junior Engineers hail from within a half-hour of the Albany area, but one, David Senecal, matches Messer just about mile for mile.

Senecal attends Drury High School in North Adams, Mass., and also has close to an hour commute to practice. In his view, it’s a better alternative than playing for a co-op high school team based in Pittsfield.

"It’s 40 minutes away and they practice at 5 in the morning, before school, so it’s not too fun to get up for that and it’s not even at as high a level as this," Senecal said. "It’s not as good as what I play over here."

Yet "over here" takes its toll, too.

"My mom bought her car with 30,000 [miles on it] and now it’s up to 230,000," Senecal said. "That’s all hockey, four or five years just hockey. My sister played over in Troy too."

PATH TO COLLEGE

Polen, too, has moved on from the days when he longed for a team sporting the Mount Anthony colors.

"I remember I used to kind of wish they had had a team," said Polen, a defenseman, who like Messer has to travel three hours or more for road games. "But now playing with the Dynamo, I don’t think so. [With the Dynamo] the level of play is a lot higher."

The Dynamo are a level below the prestigious Junior hockey ranks, a proving ground for potential college-level talent. A roughly 60-game season with the Dynamo costs about $3,000, Polen said, an even greater commitment than the $1,600 the Messers say it costs to be a part of the Troy team.

Junior hockey runs a higher price tag than both combined, but it’s Polen’s ultimate goal. College hockey would be the realization of many years of sacrifice.

"There’s a lot of things you can’t do. We had a game the night of the Homecoming dance," Polen said. "It was tough, but I made it back with like half an hour left."

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