Groton youth hockey and PAT announce co-op
By Ed Niser
GROTON -- For nearly 35 years, Groton Youth Hockey and the neighboring Pepperell-Ashby-Townsend program went toe-to-toe and sat on separate benches.
Not any more. The two teams have recently teamed up to make one super program that will go by the name of "Crusader Hockey" for the time being. Recently, PAT has noticed dwindling numbers in its youth programs due to the sprouting up of private club programs.
"We are finally crossing all of our T's and dotting the I's," Crusader hockey director Neal Archibald said. "Of course, we were rival programs, but the merger was done for the kids. We were rival programs. We had two teams at every level in PAT, and we were losing more kids each year. Now, finally, with the Groton program, we are four teams. That's the way it should be."
Both programs were financially stable coming into the merger, but Groton has also benefited from the newfound partnership with its former adversary.
"The kids at PAT did not have parody at each level," said Groton Youth Hockey league president Howie Hunter. "The whole thing about youth hockey is getting teams to play equally at each level. We have been slightly down in numbers, but we still had two or three teams at each level. We didn't have to merge, but it definitely has helped adding additional teams."
When PAT first learned of its dwindling numbers it decided to heavily recruit local youths to its learn-to-skate program in the hope that many of them would eventually climb the ladder into the hockey programs. While some did, in fact, continue to play inside the town program, others departed for private clubs.
A majority of those youth hockey players who left the town programs went to "elite" club teams such as the 495 Stars, Minuteman Flames and the Nashua Panthers. Players are often promised more ice time and practices per week, but often, it is not guaranteed, according to PAT Hockey president James Massidda.
"We did a couple things to try and help ourselves out, but we couldn't keep it going," Massidda said. "Those club programs have gotten much more aggressive in their recruiting. In my day, you truly had to be an elite player to play on one of those teams. Nowadays, they have five or six different teams. They'll take anybody and make a team for you. They advertise themselves as being a cut above the town program, but it truly is not. If you're an elite player, their claims might be true."
PAT carried over roughly 35 kids to the Groton program, which serves the surrounding towns of Groton, Dunstable, Ayer, Shirley and now Pepperell, Ashby and Townsend.
The Crusader hockey club splits its practice time between the Lawrence Academy and Groton School rinks with an occasional practice at the Wallace Civic Center in Fitchburg. The transition has been relatively seamless for the two sides as the kids are just happy to be playing hockey.
"In the first week of practice, you saw a little bit of that rivalry where the kids were trying to show each other up a little bit," Massidda said. "It was more playful than anything, a little bit of that. As a coach, it is really not a bad thing anytime you can motivate your kids, it is a good thing. After that, they jelled as a team. The kids all bonded together quickly, and you would have no idea that these kids played in different programs."
On Wednesday night, the two programs announced their merger at the Billy Woitowicz third-annual military game hosted by Groton-Dunstable against North Middlesex. The night was also Youth Hockey Night and Groton-Dunstable head hockey coach Phil Rowley is optimistic about the future benefits of the merger.
"The merger of the town programs is a great thing," Rowley said. "They will be playing together for the town programs, and when they reach high school, they will likely be on different teams. The rivalry will just grow and grow from there."