May 18, 2011

From NEHJ: Mass. Mites go from rags to riches

By Jesse Connolly

As the 2010-11 season loomed on the horizon, extinction appeared to be an unavoidable fate for the Hetland Panthers.

The youth hockey association in New Bedford, Mass., was mired in literally a decade’s worth of debt. Their top players were bolting for better organizations. The number of teams they could put together began to shrink as their crop of participants continued to dwindle.

Now, thanks to a remarkable grassroots effort, one spearheaded by parents who believed in the impact the program had on their children’s lives, those days of hardship appear to be over.

“In the previous years, they couldn’t even advertise in local papers or anywhere,” said Diana Mendes, who sent her son Samual, 6, and daughter Jacquelyn, 9, to the Panthers’ tryouts.

“We were at the rink all the time because we had been taking a learn-to-skate program. I kept looking for something about tryouts, but it never appeared. I mentioned one day to a few friends at the bus stop that my kids wanted to play on a team and they told me they should try out for the Hetland Panthers.”

Neither of Mendes’ children had played organized hockey before. Thankfully, she said, her son was in great hands with coach Matt Canniff.

“It was fabulous because the coach on the Mite team took time to make the game fun,” Mendes said, as Canniff worked in high-spirited games of on-ice tag during practices. “You could see, without them realizing it, how much better they got. It was just these really innovative ideas which made it so much easier for them to want to be there so early in the morning.”

Mendes marveled at the transformation she watched her son go through.

“I remember at the beginning of the season, just watching my son and realizing how fast all of the other kids skated,” she said. “A few months into the year, I was standing with another parent and pointed out one of the kids and said that I hoped my son could skate that way one day. All of a sudden, I realized it was Samual.”

Canniff’s influence on the team was visible outside of the rink, as well. While elevating the group of kids from a rag-tag bunch to one with budding skills, it was Canniff’s ability to unify them off the ice that truly worked wonders.

The coach encouraged his team to reach out to the community, through a canned-food drive for the homeless and by donating old toys to families in need.

“Everyone was having holiday parties and he asked the team if they wanted to do that or do a holiday party at Gift to Give,” Mendes said of Canniff’s good will. “The kids volunteered their time and all their old toys, and they were super excited about it. … We stayed there for four hours and helped give out all the toys to 40 different families. I was so proud of them.”

The Mite C team was a united bunch.

“When we got back to the ice, they were a team,” Mendes said. “They were part of each other’s lives. They worked together and they played together. He really turned them into a team.”

It was then that a magical and once-improbable run to a championship began, as Samual’s squad — driven by Canniff’s relentless encouragement — squeaked into the playoffs before capturing the Cape Cod League championship. On the cusp of receiving their trophy, the team’s familial bond was on full display.

“One young boy who was on the team, Cole Gaspar, had his father pass away a few weeks before the championship,” Mendes said. “He came back on the day of the championship to play in the final game with the team. The kids had even gone out and had little emblems sewn on their jerseys. The Hetland Panthers from New Bedford, Mass., including Samual Mendes, went from near-extinction to champions.

“When they won, they just handed the trophy to him. All the kids just wanted Cole to have it. Not a single one of them asked if it was their turn to have it. They were just so happy for him.”

Hetland’s triumphs on the ice coincided with its victories off of it. With help from the mayor’s office, members of the community and numerous parents, the association’s financial woes slowly crept closer toward being resolved and everything just began to flow from there.

The Panthers’ army of young, eager hockey players has nearly tripled from the 46 kids it began last season with. A new Learn to Skate program has been initiated and a concerted effort to retain the top players has been made. And as new players enter, those already involved have volunteered to donate their old equipment to help cut costs.

“We had to ask ourselves how we could pay for ice time, bring in more players and help the organization thrive,” Mendes said. “The parents commitment to the league went from either we’re going to not have Hetland hockey anymore or we’re all going to have to do something.”

Because of the tireless efforts of parents such as Mendes, ones that recognized the passion and the dedication that the Panthers showed toward making their kids both better players and selfless members of their community, Hetland hockey is here to stay.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com