Youth Hockey Builds Character; Also Puts Deep Dents in Island Family Pocketbooks

By CHRIS BURRELL

For nine months a year, Susan Mercier's three daughters love to lace up the skates, throw on the gloves and pads and grab a stick for a game of ice hockey.

"It's the most empowering thing you can do for your daughter," said Ms. Mercier of Edgartown.

But for parents of kids who sign up for youth hockey, the payoffs in improved self-esteem and competitive prowess on the ice can quickly put a dent in the bank account - upwards of $1,000 in fees and gear for each child.

Organizers for Martha's Vineyard Youth Hockey are now wondering if the high price of playing the sport is driving some children and their families off the ice.

The number of kids signed up for the program has dropped from 250 to 150 in the last few years, said Gina deBettencourt, the fund raising chairman for the youth hockey program.

"We want to bring the price down so it's more affordable for children and we can get more of them to play," she said.

For now, though, there are no discounts or scholarships, only fee hikes. The cost to sign up a child for the program that begins this September just went up from $650 to $750 a year.

Ms. deBettencourt said that doesn't even cover the true expense incurred by one player, which is closer to $1,300 per child.

The biggest cost is the rent paid to the Martha's Vineyard Arena for ice time, $180 an hour. In one year, the youth hockey program writes checks to the arena totaling $80,000, nearly half of all the annual income at the Oak Bluffs ice rink.

Bills for ferry tickets and gasoline eat up the bulk of the remaining budget.

On top of the fees, parents shoulder the cost of outfitting their children for a sport that doesn't come cheap. A pair of new skates can sell for $200. A high-end stick goes for $80, and then there are pads, gloves and a helmet.

"With three girls, it's a tremendous expense," said Ms. Mercier.

By comparison, other youth sports programs on the Vineyard require a fraction of the investment. The sign-up fee for soccer runs between $40 and $60 for a season. Basketball costs $25, and Vineyard Youth Tennis is free, completely underwritten by a West Tisbury philanthropist.

Richard Hewitt, coaches coordinator for Friends of Vineyard Soccer, said there are 360 children who play in the fall soccer program.

Youth ice hockey backers point out that their program lasts for nine months, equal to three seasons of most of the other sports offered on the Vineyard.

Meredith Goldthwait, another youth hockey organizer and fund raiser, said other hockey programs on the mainland cost parents even more money.

"Cape leagues are over $800 a child, and they're skating at times that aren't conducive to family life," she said.

Both Ms. Goldthwait and Ms. deBettencourt are trying to sell the advantages of the youth hockey program as they recruit parents and potential players.

"The camaraderie with teammates and players makes it like a family," said Ms. deBettencourt. "Our kids will go through this and play at the high school."

Each woman has a son who plays ice hockey. "It's a commitment but not a burden," said Ms. deBettencourt.

The program allows enough flexibility so hockey players can also squeeze in time for lacrosse, soccer and football.

In the effort to lure new, young players to the Island ice arena, organizers are also battling negative stereotypes of ice hockey, reinforced by the violence seen on the ice in the professional leagues and the occasional news accounts of violent outbursts from overzealous parents and coaches at the youth level.

"People don't understand hockey," said Ms. Goldthwait. "They look at professional hockey, and it's so tough and nasty, but youth hockey is not like that at all."

The Vineyard hockey program, she said, puts the emphasis on building skills for the game while strictly forbidding foul language and inappropriate behavior.

There are four age levels in the Island program: Mites, Squirts, Pee Wees and Bantams. The youngest, the Mites, actually have a healthy enrollment with four teams. But the Pee Wees, 10 and 11-year-olds, are down to just one squad.

So far, the low numbers in the youth hockey program have had no effect on the high school program, but that remains a concern if the feeder enterprise continues to go begging for players and interest.

"Our growth has been good," said Sam Sherman, coach of the girls' varsity ice hockey team at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.

One thing going for the high school teams is that the school picks up nearly the entire cost. Players show up with a pair of skates; the school and booster club take care of the tab for ice time and uniforms.

Over at the arena, there's also some worry about a domino effect if there's a continuing trend of anemic rosters in the youth leagues. The arena counts on that $80,000 a year for the nine teams to practice, scrimmage and play matches on its ice.

"We are definitely concerned," said arena treasurer Brion McGroarty. "But it could be a cyclical thing."

Without a doubt, Mr. McGroarty and the organizers at Martha's Vineyard Youth Hockey share a vision of a sizable bank account and endowment that would let them cut the fees charged for time on the ice and pave the way for scholarships for families who simply can't scrape together $1,000 for a child to play ice hockey for a year.

Ms. Mercier offered another suggestion. "They could have an in-house team," she said, "just so children can learn to love the game."