The three youth hockey organizations created a look for the jerseys of the united program they created.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Next winter, the Black Bears, Rattlers and Bruins will use their skills to prove their superiority on the ice.
This winter, they have been happy to develop those skills — together.
"Together for Hockey" is the slogan that has united the county's three youth hockey programs as they made the most of a season delayed and shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since January, youngsters from all three groups, the Northern Berkshire Black Bears, South County Rattlers and Pittsfield-based Berkshire Bruins, have been practicing and, recently, playing modified games at the Boys and Girls Club of the Berkshires.
"It started way back in the summer," the Bruins Chair Matt Sheehy said. "We started having conversations about how to more effectively collaborate. Obviously, COVID was pushing us in certain directions, and there was uncertainty about the availability of ice.
"It was settled some time in November that we'd build this program and do it together."
The program has run a practice program in mites, squirts, pee-wees and bantams, with each drawing between 35 and 40 players, Sheehy said. It also, for the first time in youth programs' history, organized a high school group, which drew 25 skaters.
Everyone gets three hours of ice time per week, including coaching from the leagues' regular coaches.
Every time players arrive for practices, they undergo symptom screening, and the groups' sessions are spaced far enough apart that one group does not enter the rink area until the last group has left, Sheehy said. One parent or guardian is allowed to stay and watch the session, but those spectators are socially distanced in marked seats in the bleachers.
One downside: No travel teams or competitions like the Bruins' own Gib Kittredge Tournament. But no one is complaining.
"We have quite a few people involved in the program," Sheehy said. "Many of them signed up in November and kept dealing with delays. The biggest thing was the commitment by the Boys and Girls Club to lay their ice.
"They laid the ice in November and maintained it since then. The fact that it was there and available to us in January was fantastic."
Boys and Girls Club CEO Joe McGovern said it was a sacrifice for the facility to lay the ice at a time when there were no guarantees that it would yield any revenue.
"We made the decision back in mid October that at the time the [public health] numbers were trending in a good direction, kids were going to school in a hybrid model, and it made sense," McGovern said. "We thought we'd wait two extra weeks to make sure the numbers dropped and put the ice in to be ready to start Nov. 15.
"Right around Halloween, things exploded."
And rising COVID-19 numbers of the "second surge" continued right through the post-Thanksgiving period, leading the commonwealth to clamp down on gathering limits and activities that could be allowed in the state.
"We kept the ice on because we thought it was important for the kids to have the opportunity," McGovern said. "We had people on the ice two days over Christmas break, Dec. 27 and 28, and then we shut down again for a while.
"If it hadn't started to look better at the end of December — when we got out of the red — we probably would have canceled the season. But the risk has paid off. Watching a couple of hundred kids get the chance to skate makes it all worth it."
Guy Cariddi has been coaching with the Northern Berkshire Youth Hockey League for nearly four decades. This season has presented unique challenges.
"I never expected this, and hopefully I'll never see it again," Cariddi said.
"In 38, 39 years of coaching, you learn that kids learn and develop strong friendships and bonds when they're in the locker room 30 to 45 minutes before a game and there's that team camaraderie. This year, they're sitting in the lobby, spread out 6 to 8 feet away from each other. They're allowed to enter the rink at 8:10, practice starts at 8:20, they get off the ice at 9:30 and take their helmet off, their skates off, throw a jacket on and they're out the door.
"There's not the time to do the bonding. But obviously, it's much better than not having any hockey available to the kids at all."
The ice at the Boys and Girls Club also has been available to local figure skaters who similarly were in danger of losing an entire winter to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Club has been able to open its gymnasium for youth basketball and, on this weekend, the high school programs from Pittsfield and Taconic.
"We worked really hard with [Pittsfield Public Schools Athletic Director] Jim Abel and the school system to try to get something for these kids," McGovern said. "Especially for the seniors, it's devastating for them. My daughter was a senior last year — losing prom, losing graduation, all that is terrible for kids.
"Getting kids back to normalcy but doing it in a way that's safe for them and the entire community is great. If you come to the Club, the regulations and rules can be daunting, but once we get the kids inside and get them safe, it's nothing but big smiles on their faces."
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