Island League three-on-three youth hockey returned last November to the Martha’s Vineyard Arena for a second season. The league has proven to be an increasingly successful, economical way for young players, from Squirts through Bantams (ages 10-14) to have fun and gain experience without the weekly rigors of off-Island travel and the considerable annual expense of travel team play.
“The whole idea is to be a rec program,” Island League committee member Kris Lukowitz said. “We’re hoping to break down the barriers of cost and quote-unquote year-round travel. Some families are discouraged by that. What we’re hoping to do is encourage kids to play hockey. The kids don’t have to travel, the cost is a lot more reasonable and it’s not as intimidating as highly competitive travel teams with tryouts. It’s kids having fun playing hockey.”
Mr. Lukowitz credits Island resident Mick Vukota, a former professional player, with planting the seed several years ago for the creation of a recreational league. “He could see early on when he was coaching travel hockey that we weren’t serving everyone’s needs,” he said. “It started with him identifying that hole in our program.”
A full seven-month season of travel team hockey costs more than $1,200 for tuition, plus additional expenses for equipment and travel costs for parents. Island League tuition is $350 for the season, which lasts from November through March. Games are played each Sunday from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm. Practices for PeeWees and Bantams are Mondays from 7:30-8:30 pm and Tuesdays from 6-7 pm for Squirts.
The league doubled in size from last season and is comprised of eight teams: the Bruins, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Capitals, Stars, Kings, and Sharks, with eight players on each. Currently, 65 players are participating; 40 from travel teams and 25 strictly in the Island League. “We want to establish the program and keep our numbers up,” Mr. Lukowitz said. “Long term, we’re hoping to get enough kids who are interested in playing in the rec league to support it as a separate entity. For kids who don’t want to travel, we have an option for them.”
Last year, the league received the Cheever Grow Hockey Grant (named in memory of Mike Cheever, a dedicated youth hockey volunteer from Massachusetts). “We were awarded the money to help fund the Island League and that’s helping us with the cost of our ice, the wooden sticks, and the cost of clinics for the rec players in the program,” Mr. Lukowitz said.
This season, the league adopted the same temporary cross-ice divider system used in the House Mite program. The special boards, purchased through the aid of donations, divide the full sheet of ice into equal halves, allowing for two games to take place simultaneously. Games are approximately 50 minutes in length, divided into 25-minute halves.
The skaters play in one minute shifts, with the action uninterrupted by offsides or icing. Even after a goal is scored, the referee immediately throws down a new puck. Given the mixture of travel hockey players and recreational players, the quick shifts keep the game competitive and ever changing. Novice players gain experience, while the more polished players sharpen their skills without dominating the proceedings. Each player gets equal ice time, averaging more than 20 minutes per game. Coaches also try to match lines in regard to age and experience, with travel players playing against each other and recreational players doing the same.
The three on three format played within the tighter confines of the cross ice area gives each child more time with the puck and a greater sense of being in the action. Skills are sharpened more quickly as are reactions to game situations.
“The half rink gives everybody more touches; they’re all having fun” Mr. Lukowitz said. “This has been a big success. It was definitely a little tough to convince people at the beginning, especially the travel families, who would ask ‘why does my kid have to play cross-ice?’ This is the way the game is played in pro hockey and high level colleges. They practice in small spaces.”
At present, goalies are in the shortest supply. In the event a team is without a goalie, goals are covered by blue plastic puck stoppers with target holes cut out in various locations. Also, a player not accustomed to playing the position, can step in and gain experience in goal under less intimidating circumstances than in travel team play.
The Island League is run by a committee, consisting of Geoghan Coogan, Kris Lukowitz, Jevon Rego, Julie Hatt, Natalie Krauthamer, Greg Carroll, Angie Grant, and Courtney Marek. Numerous volunteers also assist with the game clocks, scoring, setting up nets, and officiating.
Mr. Lukowitz praised the tireless efforts of Geoghan Coogan, who, in addition to being the coaching coordinator on the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Hockey board, coaches both squirt and house mite teams, volunteers with the high school programs, and runs a law practice.
“The level of thought and energy that Geoghan brings to this on a weekly basis is incredible,” Mr. Lukowitz said. “The league basically wouldn’t function the way it does without him.”
This article was updated to correct the name of the grant awarded to the youth hockey program.