AYER -- Looking at the Blue Knight's hockey sweaters the first thing you will notice is how the emblem portrays both the Ayer-Shirley Panther and the Blue Knight. The Blue Knight's shield has a roaring panther jumping off the front, and the color scheme incorporates both the Ayer-Shirley crimson and the Lunenburg blue.
One third of the Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley hockey team comes from Ayer-Shirley High School and that is the way the numbers have been since the partnership began in 1999.
"They're just as much part of the team as the Lunenburg kids," said Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley head coach Eric Short. "We've really made a transition when we first started right down to the mascot and the jerseys. The program would not exist without Ayer players nor would it exist without Lunenburg players. As far as I'm concerned, the only difference is they go to two different buildings for class."
The most challenging part about joining two schools together is gaining team chemistry, and the Blue Knights feel that right from the get-go it has been a fringeless relationship.
"Coming in freshman year, I didn't know anyone, but a hockey relationship is much different than the average friendship," said LAS forward Keven Cowdrey. "We have built a good bond here because we see each other every day."
Cooperative hockey has been a growing trend in recent years, with the cost of ice time and equipment on the rise. The amount of money that one school must shell out is often too much to shoulder.
Ice time averages around $250 an hour at the Wallace Civic Center that is managed by FMC Ice Sports. Lunenburg's booster program helps to offset some of the costs of keeping the program running. Ayer-Shirley contributes roughly $650 per player each season.
Other cooperative teams in the area include Littleton-Bromfield, which has 11 Trojans on the roster, Nashoba-Clinton, Fitchburg-Monty Tech and Assabet-Maynard. The Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley kids in most cases have never played club hockey together. A vast majority of the Lunenburg members of the cooperative team competed together at the club level for Twin City. The Ayer players sighted the Groton youth hockey league as the place many local Ayer and Shirley players turn to.
Traditionally, the Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley Blue Knights like to have at least one captain from Ayer-Shirley each year, it just so happens that this year's team vote favored Cowdrey and senior Dan Hughes. Cowdrey is a three-year varsity player who started the season as a defenseman, but has made a smooth transition to forward this season.
Typically the Blue Knights would like to have two from each school to showcase the great partnership between the two athletic departments.
"Hughes has been a captain for two years now and is a leader on and off the ice," said assistant Jason Welch. "He is one of our more talented players. Hughes sees a lot of ice time on a lot of special teams. He has had some shoulder issues in the past, but we've really counted on him as a first-line center."
Ayer-Shirley sophomore forward Danny Baldino is one of the premier players from Ayer-Shirley who is a very strong finisher in the slot. Baldino has a high hockey IQ and is equally effective on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ice.
Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley has been enjoying success on the rink, capturing the Bushnoe Tournament crown over the holiday break. The Blue Knights are still in the Div. 3-A district playoff picture with a record of 3-3-1 in the Coughlin Conference and 8-4-2 overall.
Cowdrey and Hughes urge the Ayer-Shirley public and students to come out and support the hockey team. The Blue Knights play all of their home games at Fitchburg State University's Gaetz Arena at the Wallace Civic Center.
Get used to hockey at Ayer-Shirley, because in the eyes of Short, it is here to stay.
"It's probably one of the best co-ops around in terms of the relationship between the two schools," said Short. "I hope that it stays like this forever."