on the cutting edge

The Baltimore Sun

One by one, the students pushed through the doors of the Reisterstown Sportsplex, shouldering bulky bags of gear and carrying hockey sticks.

They were the members of what appears to be Dulaney's first - albeit unofficial - ice hockey team, meeting for an informal practice at the rink. Launched through the efforts of three students with a passion for hockey, the club team is also a rarity for Baltimore County, where, like most of the state's districts, ice hockey is not recognized as a school sport.

Connor Brown, a junior at Dulaney, dreamed up the idea about a year ago, after transferring from Boys' Latin, where he played on a team.

"At first, it was kind of like a joke," Brown, 16, said. But then "it got more serious."

During the past school year, he and fellow athletes Elsa Manning and Taylor Batton asked others whether they would be interested. They texted hockey players they knew at Dulaney. Placed an item in a local newsletter. Sent e-mails. Along the way, Brown snagged his history teacher, Brian Velten, who agreed to coach if they got everything together.

Joe LaCour, commissioner of the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League, said the Dulaney team is the first his league has seen from a Baltimore County public school in years. But, LaCour said, the recently opened Reisterstown rink might inspire more.

Even though the team is not under the auspices of his school, Dulaney principal Patrick S. McCusker said he has been updated on its progress.

"Ice hockey is not a wildly popular sport in this part of the country, so I was impressed that these kids took the initiative and saw it through," he said.

For hockey players, the lack of popularity usually afforded such sports as lacrosse and football has required them to rely on their own initiative - and their parents' pocketbooks - to secure ice time.

"We're kind of on our own," said Debbie Brown, Connor Brown's mother. "In the world of hockey, that's kind of how it is."

Many pieces are already in place: Fourteen students are on the roster, a practice schedule has been set and the uniforms have been ordered, Debbie Brown said. The team has two coaches - both also coach at Gilman.

The team is likely to play up to 12 games this season, Brown said.

A bigger challenge lies in renting ice, which can cost about $300 an hour, LaCour said. Most games last 90 minutes - and then there are practices. "You can't go out back to the school field and throw a ball around," he said.

The cost of ice time, as well as jerseys, game slots and other items, will be covered by a fee each family pays, Debbie Brown said. Next year, she added, with more time, the team can look for sponsors.

Almost every district considers such teams clubs or community sports, said LaCour, whom the Dulaney students approached about forming a club. But the MSHL requires athletes to meet their schools' academic standards, he said.

Before one evening practice, Manning slipped through the glass door of the sports rink, toting a bulging red bag filled with a helmet, shin guards, shoulder and elbow pads, and other items.

She walked into a cold and cavernous space, immediately greeted by the sounds of blades gliding on ice and pucks slapping around the rink.

Two goals were set up where Connor Brown, a couple of other players and the coaches zipped around, pucks darting along the smooth, white surface.

Manning, 15, recalled her peers' disbelief when she mentioned the budding team. She said she joined the effort "to say that I did it - and also to play with the guys," as she once did in peewee hockey.

"It's pretty cool," said Manning, who also plays on a girls team and has skated since she was 7 or 8.

Said Laura Manning, her mother, "The camaraderie and the school spirit are the big draw."

While some suggest the sheer cost of the sport - and visions of NHL brawls - keep school systems from embracing ice hockey, numbers (or lack of them) seem to be the major obstacle.

"School systems, when there's enough interest in a particular sport, the number of students and so forth, will offer" it, said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.

Easton High in Talbot County has the only state-sanctioned interscholastic ice hockey team, Sparks and Talbot school officials said. However, last season the MSHL and the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association had more than 70 teams between them - including schools in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore.

The Dulaney team has drawn fresh recruits. Its goalie had not skated before the first practice, Connor Brown said, and others have never played hockey. Manning said a girl on her volleyball team was also thinking about participating.

Batton said he hopes the "tons of interest" they've gotten will translate into committed teammates.

"They really wanted to start something and leave it behind," Debbie Brown said of the students. "Things are really coming together as the word gets out."

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