Ten years ago, the scattered leagues and rogue teams of Rhode Island's amateur hockey scene were unified into one nonprofit organization, the Cranston Senior Hockey League (CSHL). This sweeping …
Ten years ago, a veteran Cranston PE teacher revolutionized the amateur hockey scene in Rhode Island. For years he had watched as scattered leagues appeared and dissolved in just a few seasons, as teams roved from one to another. Working in his free time, on his own, he brought the fragmented sport together into a single league, the Cranston Senior Hockey League (CSHL). It has been a colossal success, making Cranston once again the seat of men’s hockey in Rhode Island. Yet, as the league draws more players from all over New England, the sport’s historic popularity in the city itself has declined.
In the Cranston Veterans Memorial Ice Rink at 7pm on a Wednesday, that decline is a distant thought. Two teams—the Rat Pack and the Wintergreen Grizzlies—are warming up on the ice, doing the same drills they’ve been doing since they were kids. Both of these teams are in the top division in the league, but they are not top teams. Right now, they’re competing to stay out of last place.
The Rat Pack have a fresh name and mascot for their third year with the CSHL. Their previous name came from a terrifying incident in which a teammate found extra fluff in one of their skates and a tiny mouse popped out.
“We all jumped on the bench and screamed like a pack of cowards and shooed the mouse away,” team captain Zach Scuncio says. “Hence the name the Field Mice.”
The team has a 6-10 record, but #8 Rob Brueher has two hat tricks this season, making him one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the division.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, scored the most goals of any team in the division last year, and are a close second in that category this year. The catch is that they also have an undisputed lead in goals scored against them.
“Our offense is a big strength,” captain Alex Newton says. “But I definitely would say our overall defense and goaltending is probably a big issue right now for us.”
The Grizzlies formed a few years ago as an intramural hockey team at the University of Rhode Island, and with their youth and athleticism are probably the fastest team in the league.
The last time these two met, the Rat Pack won. The time before that, it was the Grizzlies. Tonight, as the puck first falls to the ice, the burdens of the past and the pressures of the future unlatch. There is no record of wins and losses in the cosmos of the first second of play, no certainty of last place for the defeated. The hundred-plus year history of hockey in Cranston pauses, and doubt over the sport’s future here vanishes like grooves in the ice smoothed over before each game. Then Alex swipes the puck to #17, and the period is underway.
A Cranston landmark
By the time these teams joined, the CSHL was the obvious choice. Ten years ago, that was far from inevitable. To get the league going, its founder had to convince dozens of teams to pay daunting fees, book ice time and enlist supporting staff (referees, scorekeeper), schedule 17 weeks of competition in the winter and summer, sort teams by ability into a variable number of divisions, keep track of 'free agents,' substitutions, suspensions, etc: in short, tackle a bureaucratic truckload that would bowl over anybody, let alone an unpaid volunteer with a full-time job.
But hockey means a lot here, and when the manager of Cranston’s municipal ice rink asked Jeff Hebert to do it, the answer was easy.
"I grew up in that rink with my brothers and my dad, played hundreds and hundreds of hours there," Hebert says. "It's kind of neat that I'm running a senior amateur league there."
In the first season, Hebert brought on 25 teams. Last summer, there were 38, including teams from other states. He expects the growth to continue, and attributes much of it to the rink’s location at the 295-37 interchange.
"You're almost in the center of the universe of the state," Hebert says. "Everybody can get there."
The 53-year old rink, owned and operated by the City, was for decades the cradle of Cranston’s rising hockey talent. Now it is the bustling capital of Hebert’s hockey empire.
“The Cranston ice rink is no longer a community ice rink,” manager David M. Bucci says. “It's a statewide ice rink, and I call it a regional rink because every weekend teams come from Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Maine, Vermont.”
The rink itself, a tunnel arch supported by iconic blue timbers, could be an art deco aircraft hangar. It looks a little stranded, alone in an empty lot separated from the highway by a sliver of debris-strewn woods. The only other structure on the lot is a municipal animal shelter, where pit bull terriers Mercy, Honey, Timmy, and Rafi await new homes.
Though it is “getting gray hairs now,” Hebert says, the rink is still in pretty good shape. For 20 years starting in 1993, the city had tried to find a private company to run the facility. After cycling through three operators whose poor management cost Cranston hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs and renovations, the city resumed control in 2013. It has been a profitable asset since, generating around $100,000 annually according to an NBC 10 interview with former City Councilman Donald Botts in 2015. As the rink’s second-biggest tenant, Hebert’s CSHL contributes much of that revenue.
The players themselves are a diverse bunch, and though habitually called a mens’ league several women play too.
“We've had doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, blue collar workers, business men,” Hebert says.
Some teams are sponsored by local companies (especially if a player happens to own one), which makes for unique matchups. In the Northern division, for example, the team in second is Newport Lemonade, who have a professional logo modeled after a state seal. The team in first is Soft Dumps. They are represented by a clip-art drawing of a toilet. Soft Dumps’ record is 11-3, and they are undefeated versus Newport Lemonade.
Mattioli Orthodontics, meanwhile, a team named for a family dental practice run by an ex-Navy doctor, has had a contentious season-long battle with the Fussy Puckers. Mattioli took the first match 4-3, but Fussy Puckers won the next 3-1. (Three of Mattioli Orthodontics’ players have been suspended for fighting or unsportsmanlike conduct this season, more than any other team.) In the Eastern division, Free Way Car Wash has suffered losses to the Back Door Bandits, Shoot'n Blanks, and the Mighty Fuxxx.
The future of the game
"We have a legacy in the city of Cranston that goes back to the 1920s and 30s, when Cranston High School was winning state championships," Hebert says.
Hebert has become an expert on the history of hockey in Rhode Island, and says Cranston’s significance is unrivaled. In the 1960s, Cranston East won four state titles and two New England championships—the best high school team ever to compete in Rhode Island. In the 1980s, the three Ernst brothers led a Cranston team that produced several All-State players, NHL pros, and coaches. In the 1990s, Cranston native David Emma won the Hobey Baker award, still the only player from Rhode Island to receive that honor.
Bucci recalls when the City used to cut down Aqueduct field and flood it to create an ice-skating surface each year after Thanksgiving.
“We’d go down there and skate for hours,” he says. “Hockey was ingrained in Cranston’s life. It was part of it, it was its blood.”
But hockey’s popularity has faded in the past three decades. For many, the death-knell came in 2013, when Cranston East and Cranston West ended their individual programs and formed one co-op team. Both schools used to have varsity, junior varsity, and B teams, but low enrollment forced the accolade-laden programs to shut down. The same has happened in school districts throughout Rhode Island.
“It’s because it costs too much,” Bucci says.
Hockey is the most expensive youth sport. The starting equipment (skates, pads, gloves, stick) costs around $1000. Travel teams travel further and more frequently than they used to, adding hotel and transit expenses. At peak times of the year, ice time for practice can cost $300 an hour. With soccer and basketball available, fewer families in Cranston are choosing to invest in ice hockey. What youth leagues are still around, Bucci says, are run for-profit, which is turning hockey into “a rich person’s game.”
But there remains what Hebert calls the hockey “fraternity,” the close-knit web of people who grew up skating together in earlier decades, when hockey was in its heyday. For its lifelong devotees like Bucci, the game has no substitute.
“My whole life has been hockey,” Bucci says. “All my friends are hockey players, my job is because of hockey, my other job I had before managing the ice rink was through the father of a kid I played hockey with.” Now 59, Buccia had to quit playing two years ago due to a stroke.
"I'm still skating with a lot of the guys that were my age," says Anthony Dolbashian, the rink's Zamboni driver, who's been a defenseman all his life and currently plays in a division of the Smithfield league where the other players are in their 60s and early 70s. “Even at my age, some guys take it a little too seriously, they’ll chop you with their stick.”
The League keeps Cranston large in the lives of those who love hockey in Southern New England. Its expansion, though, has forced Hebert to book times at other rinks, such as the Warburton Arena in Warwick. He’d prefer to keep it in Cranston, and urges the City Council to consider adding a second rink on the property to accommodate more play.
Rat Pack vs. Wintergreen Grizzlies
At the end of the second period, the Rat Pack’s bench is silent. The players sit or stand feet apart from each other, leaning on their sticks. When time is called, they reluctantly return to the ice. The final score is 9-4, Grizzlies.
As the teams line up and shake hands, the usual sort of time—where seasons end, bodies age, and traditions fade—seeps back into the arena. The Grizzlies’ record ticks up to 6-11; the loss sentences the Rat Pack to last place. At the beginning anything was possible, and in the end what happened was inevitable.
“I enjoy watching these kids, how fast they are,” Dolbashian says. “That was us out there at one time, that was me out there skating fast like that. Can't do it no more.”
For generations, hockey was a natural companion to life in Cranston: The bonds forged between players have held for their entire lives, and in some cases determined the course of their lives. For ten years now, the CSHL has provided hockey’s surviving fans the chance to play, which means the same chance given to the ten guys on the ice on Wednesday night off the highway: to escape time, for 36 minutes. As hockey in Cranston becomes history, and the game’s pious get older, that opportunity counts for a lot.
Or, as Dolbashian says, “Just play, try to make passes, have a good laugh—that’ it.”