At this time last year, Scott Hughes was like many other local parents with high school age daughters playing hockey: stuck. His daughter, Sarah, was a Clinton High School sophomore with a passion for the game, yet the younger Hughes and her club teammates were faced with an unlikely dilemma in the heart of the hockey calendar: they often had no one to play locally.
At first glance, a hockey team with a shortage of opponents almost seems too outlandish to be true, but for this group of girls, it was reality. When they were young, the girls often played with the boys, and there was never a shortage of games or tournaments. That abundance of game action quickly turned scarce when they reached high school age. The boys went to play high school hockey, along with a select few girls that were able to make the cut in tryouts with their school’s team. The rest sought what were often less than ideal opportunities elsewhere to stay in the game. To find top-level competition meant making long, frequent drives to rinks across the state. To stay local meant limited access to practice and game time.
Even those that were good enough to stay local and play high school hockey with the boys were faced with obstacles. Many of them felt as if they were on an island, as if they never truly belonged to the team, even though the ink on the paper, and the name on the front of their sweater said otherwise.
With issues like these common for high school age girls in the sport, a handful of districts across upstate New York took upon themselves to give girls the opportunity to stay local, play top competition, and most of all, truly belong to a hockey team again. The solution presented by these districts was to begin offering hockey to girls at the high school level as a varsity sport.
It’s a decision that has rapidly gained a foothold on the upstate NY sports scene, as fourteen teams scattered across sections III, VII, and X completed the 2014-15 season, but it left local players here in Oneida County in the scheduling dilemma that was alluded to earlier, as there was no high school level team for girls in the area. The girls across the state that formerly played club level hockey, were taking a midseason hiatus from that level for the duration of the high school season, leaving local players with little or no competition for close to three months until the club season resumed.
With girls programs across the state beginning to find success, and with a lack of options to compete otherwise, it was Hughes that posed the question of why no one locally had tried to form a team at the high school level.
“From November to February, there was this hole in our schedule,” Hughes said. “We wanted to play all winter long. We wanted a high school level program in this part of Central New York.”
At that moment, the dream of girls from Oneida County playing high school hockey for the first time was born. It was that one question that began a seven-month long journey from mere concept, to incredible reality.
With many other local parents on board, Hughes needed to find the support of a local district superintendent to take the lead on the project and provide administrative support. Mindful of the fact that districts have regularly sought cutbacks in today’s economic climate, he proposed a funding model that would be extremely conducive to keeping school budgets down. The team would fund itself, and provide playing opportunities to students of partner districts free of charge. With a cost-conscious funding model in tow, Hughes pitched the concept to Clinton Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen Grimm in March of this year, and quickly had one of the team’s biggest champions on board.
“His support was everything,” Hughes said. “Instead of asking ‘why?’, he said ‘why not?’. This project would not have gone anywhere without his support.”
The funding model that had caught Grimm’s attention, and the regional team concept that would allow their district’s students to participate in girls’ varsity hockey for the first time while wearing the maroon and white of the Clinton Warriors, quickly found favor among other area superintendents. In all, 10 districts showed interest, and would eventually sign on for the inaugural season.
Upon conceptual approval of the project, Hughes and the others working behind the scenes to put a team on the ice began a race against time. The team needed to raise a minimum operating budget of $25,000 in under three months to get on the ice in November. Thanks in large part to the support of the business community, what seemed like a tall order for a fledgling program became a relative walk in the park. As those behind the project went from business to business in search of financial support, they noticed a pleasantly surprising trend: nearly every business they reached out to had approved of providing some form of support to the program in its first year. In addition to brick and mortar businesses, others came to the team’s aid as well. The Save of the Day foundation came through with a sizeable financial donation to get the program on its feet, and Utica College women’s ice hockey coach Dave Clausen, who has given many local players an opportunity to continue playing in college in his fifteen years as head coach, came forward with a donation of practice jerseys and other essentials.
“I’m not from this area, and not being from the area, I wanted to make sure there was tremendous support before we did this,” Grimm said. “There’s something special about being able to start this here, with the history of hockey in this area and the old Clinton Comets. If this was the birthplace of professional hockey locally, it’s only fitting that Clinton will also become the birthplace of girls high school hockey in Oneida County.”
The team was formally approved by the Clinton Central School District Board of Education in September, which brought the Warriors to their next step, finding a coach for their inaugural season. Four finalists were forwarded to administration, and among them was one candidate that stood out.
Nicole Ruddy, who also works as a guidance counselor with the Frankfort-Schuyler Central School District, was that candidate. As a former player herself, Ruddy could relate to growing as a hockey player within the continually evolving landscape of women’s hockey, at a time when opportunities to play the game as a teenage girl were limited at best.
“When I grew up, like everyone else I started off playing with the boys, and there was one girls’ team in New Hartford, which was a 19u,” Ruddy said. “I started playing on that team when I was 12, so there was quite a range of girls on that team, and there were only about 10 to 15 girls. It grew a bit more by the time I was in high school to the point where a 19u and 16u team. We would travel every weekend and went all over the northeast, and I was lucky enough to continue on at the Division III varsity level in college.”
A graduate of Thomas R. Proctor, Ruddy went on to SUNY Cortland, where she played four years as a forward under Hamilton grad Jen Kroleski, and former Morrisville State men’s coach Earl Utter. She was the school’s active leader in career total points at the time her collegiate career concluded, with 31. After spending a fair amount of time away from the game after graduation, Ruddy hopes to impart many of the lessons she’s learned as a player to leave a lasting impact on a new generation of player.
“The main goal is to further their development, and take those skills that they already have, run through them with a fine tooth comb and see how we can progress their play to compete at the varsity level and, for those that want to continue on, onto college hockey.”
With all the commotion leading up to putting the team on the ice, starting practice may have seemed like the easy part, especially when the number in tryouts was close to ideal. In all, 25 players from 10 districts came out for the team, and all 25 were retained for the inaugural roster. Those 25 players came from the Clinton, New Hartford, Whitesboro, Utica, Notre Dame, Cazenovia, Oriskany, Rome, and Holland Patent districts, as well as Syracuse CBA. Ruddy said the unique nature of the team is what made the decision to keep every player an easy one.
“There’s 10 districts and a lot of factors involved when it comes to having enough players available for practice and games,” Ruddy said “Snow days come up, illnesses come up, that’s going to cancel a lot of things out. So I did keep everyone. We’re trying to build a program here, so there’s really no harm that could have been done by keeping everyone, and going to help their game and grow their skills.”
Just as the coaches and administrators are excited to get this program off the ground, the players are excited as well. Stephanie Husnay, a winger from Whitesboro, is thrilled to learn more about her new teammates and get the dedicated coaching and practice time that was previously much more difficult to come by in the local area.
“The thing about coming from a boys team is that you really can’t bond as much,” Husnay said. “With an all-girls team, we’re all really going to get to know each other a lot better, it’s like a big family….. It’s a great thing for girls in this area because we’re finally going to be on the ice five days a week, which is a great opportunity.”
Katie Nellis, a blueliner who will make the trek from the Christian Brothers Academy of Syracuse for practice and games, is most excited about how her new teammates will enhance her knowledge of the game.
“It will definitely be cool to learn from other players, and how they style their game and their way of doing things,” Nellis said.
In their inaugural season, the Warriors will jump into the fray of the Section X league, which features fellow Section III combatants Oswego and Skaneateles. They will open the season with a game at Albany Academy on 11/24, before returning to the Clinton Arena in what will be a historic home opener on December 5th as they host the Ithaca Little Red at 7:30 PM.
As much as the focus has been on getting this team together and starting the season, Grimm, the proud Superintendent who now gets to oversee the only girls’ high school hockey team in Oneida County, acknowledged with a smile that this is more than a hockey team with grassroots beginnings, rather it is the beginning of a long term journey for this generation of players and beyond.
“More exciting than creating something new is that we’re creating an opportunity for these girls to participate in something they love,” Grimm said. “It’s going to be amazing to see them out there with regional teammates and see the excitement on their faces knowing that in the coming seasons, they’re all going to have an experience that will change their lives.”
Congratulations to all who made this team a reality and best of luck for a great season from your friends at The Mid York Sports Report!