A new era of ice hockey is dawning in Westport, and the Westport P.A.L. Rink at Longshore symbolizes it.
Over the past 18 months, a youth hockey association was formed in town, a new coaching staff was brought into the high school program and Longshore's outdoor rink was significantly improved to make it a hockey venue.
A $20,000 upgrade transformed the rink from a recreational skating facility to one suitable for high school hockey competition. The co-op team that Staples High School players skate for scrimmaged Norwalk there on Dec. 13, and the rink got rave reviews.
"It was awesome," Westport Youth Hockey Association co-founder Tom Stanford said of the scrimmage. "Knowing that the high school made a renewed commitment to get that program back on that track, we wanted to have a consistent feeder system so they would be going up to that level. In 60 or 90 days, we got 12 months of work done (to the rink)."
In order to accommodate hockey, a makeshift penalty box was built, four sets of bleachers were set up, benches were adjusted and a scoreboard was donated. The night before the scrimmage, lines and face-off circles were painted on for the first time in the rink's history.
"We wanted to ensure that all the spectators were safe," said Tony Lantier, owner of Thin Ice Management, which manages the rink for the Parks and Recreation Department. "We had netting in front of every viewing point; we did a lot of carpentry work."
Since 1995, the Longshore rink has been erected on tennis courts. Currently, stick time is available on Sunday mornings, but Lantier stressed that the primary purpose of the facility remains recreational skating and that won't change anytime soon.
"It's a win-win for everyone," Lantier said. Hockey activities are being scheduled when the rink otherwise would not be in use, he said, so it won't infringe on public-skating hours.
"We don't want to turn it into a hockey rink; it is for figure skating."
Still, Westport hockey enthusiasts see the upgraded rink and introduction of hockey activities there as a symbol of a new commitment to the game in town.
The Westport Youth Hockey Association was founded in 2012 by Stanford and Andy Strober and initially is focused on a single age group.
Last season, the association brought together 35 Westport players ages 12 and 13 who were skating for various teams. Dubbed the Junior Wreckers, they practiced together occasionally at various rinks and participated in a scrimmage at the end of the season.
The plan this year is for the players to continue competing for their out-of-town teams but supplement their development with workouts in Westport and get to know each other as players.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the kids to play together," said Geoff McCuskey, whose son Matt competes for the Wonderland Wizards in Bridgeport but also is one of the Junior Wreckers. "With all of the different levels, kids in the same town don't know who plays hockey. The Wreckers program is great for kids in the same town to get to know each other and play the sport."
Led by first-year coach Todd Sharinn, the Staples High School Wreckers have gone undefeated in preseason. This includes a weekend trip to Massachusetts that co-captain Ian Offenberg described as an "awesome bonding experience."
"The (new coaching staff) has been great," Staples junior Jack Mendillo said. "They've all played hockey at a very high level before so it brings that respect."
At the Dec. 13 scrimmage, Staples was buoyed by fervent fan support that resembled a football or basketball crowd and defeated Norwalk 7-1.
"We know there was a lot of hype going into this game, and it lived up to everything," Offenberg said. "It was a lot of fun."
Staples begins its regular season Dec. 21 at the Milford Ice Pavilion against NFA/St. Bernard/Bacon.
The Staples coaching staff, in conjunction with Westport PAL, will run clinics over the winter for ages 5-13 in a bid to further generate local interest in the sport. One of the main goals is to play a few Staples home games at Longshore as early as next season. Given the success of opening night, that remains a distinct possibility.
"We don't have to try to run before we're walking," Lantier said. "It's an exploratory measure. From what I can see and what I know, I think we are in a good place with great potential. We are excited with what we have here."