Volume 74, Number 25 | Octuber 20 - 26 , 2004

Sports


Coaches skated way through hockey’s changes

By Judith Stiles

As a child, Alana Blahoski dutifully attended both her brothers’ ice hockey practices as a spectator, because her dad was the coach and because in the early ’80s, in St. Paul, Minn., girls only took up figure skating. However, young Alana had a natural curiosity about the game and she decided firmly that the only thing she wanted was a pair of those black hockey skates that her brothers got to wear. She was an energetic child who liked to cavort around the rink out of Coach Wade Blahoski’s sightline, making it impossible for him to run a smooth practice, since he was always looking over his shoulder for little Alana.

One day, in desperation Coach Blahoski dressed his daughter in hockey gear and threw her on the ice with the team. At least now he could keep an eye on her. Little did he know by l998, eyes from all over the world would be watching his daughter at the peak of her hockey career, as a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team when they brought home a gold medal, beating Canada, 3-1 in Nagano, Japan.

“My father was the perfect coach,” Alana Blahoski recalls fondly. “He was never too critical, especially after a game. In the car ride home he might make a suggestion. He was great,” she adds. Her father launched her career in St. Paul. At the time she often thought she was the only girl playing hockey in the entire state of Minnesota. “I wore a ponytail and I didn’t tuck it in, so everyone knew a girl was on the team,” she recounts.

Once an instructor at a hockey camp declared that “Girls don’t play hockey,” which did not stop Alana Blahoski for a minute. She graduated from Johnson High School in St. Paul, where she was a three-time all star in hockey. She attended Providence College where she finished her career with 83 points on 35 goals and 48 assists. She was a two-time member of the U.S. Women’s National Team and has played in the prestigious women’s league in Lugano, Switzerland, where only two foreign players are invited to play.

At 30, one might think her hockey career is over. However, ask 93-year-old Sydney DeRoner, who skated until he was 86, played recreationally into his late 50s and was a coach for 18 years. Hang up her skates? No way. DeRoner, founder of the South Orange Canadiens Hockey Club in New Jersey, is betting that Alana Blahoski is just beginning a long and illustrious career as a coach.

Currently, New York City hockey players are lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn power skating with Alana Blahoski right here at Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers, on the West Side Highway at W. 23rd St. You can also watch her playing right wing (her favorite position) on adult teams organized by Ronnie Talerico, the general manager of the hockey program at Sky Rink. Alana Blahoski is currently under consideration to be part of the coaching staff of the Women’s National Team in 2006.

Today at Chelsea Piers, Alana Blahoski is quick to point out that almost 25 percent of the hockey players are girls, a change she believes took place because of the success of the women’s team at the 1998 Olympics.

DeRoner and Alana Blahoski agree that kids today are extremely fortunate to have so many excellent training programs to choose from. When DeRoner was a kid in South Orange, N.J., there were no hockey teams, no fancy uniforms, no coaches and very few indoor rinks. Until he was 18 years old, he played “shinny,” a fast-paced game with five to 10 players on outdoor ponds with no goaltenders, two rocks set up as goalposts and lights strung on trees for night games.

In 1930, when DeRoner was a senior at Columbia High School in South Orange, a teacher and former player for Dartmouth College named Ray Sterling persuaded the school to start a hockey team. The boys practiced in the girls’ gym with towels wrapped around the sticks so they wouldn’t damage the wooden floor. Sterling drafted DeRoner, the school baseball team’s catcher, to be the goaltender, and although they spent a great deal of time practicing with a tennis ball, the team went on to reach the finals in the state championship tournament in Princeton their first year.

DeRoner points out that they did not play with all the protective gear that kids have today. Goaltenders never wore facemasks in his day and they depended on catching the puck with a five-fingered glove.

Alana Blahoski adds that young players these days prefer graphite sticks to wooden ones, but in her opinion with graphite you don’t feel the puck in the same way. Wistfully, she adds that more players are giving up the wooden stick because they can have a harder slap shot with graphite.

The game has changed, the equipment has changed, the season is longer, but both DeRoner and Blahoski agree that the fundamentals of coaching remain intact. Encourage your players, be supportive and transform the criticism into suggestions, saving most of it for at least the car ride home.

“Most important, teach the kids how to skate,” says DeRoner. “Start them out with knees bent, head forward, with shoulders over the knee.” At the rate things are changing, you can bet they might be skating well into their 80s like DeRoner.

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