Creating connections

Hockey players mentor youth, build support for program in community

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A. Sue Weisler

Participants wait to get on the ice. About 145 youngsters took part in this year’s camp, where they were mentored by Division I athletes.

RIT men’s hockey player Chris Saracino has come full circle. As a child growing up in St. Louis, Saracino valued opportunities where he could learn from more experienced players. Now as a hockey camp counselor, he is a role model for local youth.

“It’s the coolest aspect of a hockey camp for any young player, to be able to interact with people you look up to and see what they’re like,” Saracino says. “For us, it’s really important to set an example for them and provide a sense of community within the hockey world.”

About 145 youngsters representing a variety of youth hockey programs from across the Rochester region took part in this year’s Tiger Hockey School. The weeklong program, sponsored each summer by RIT men’s hockey and under the direction of head coach Wayne Wilson and associate head coach Brian Hills, offers young athletes skills development and an opportunity for mentorship from collegiate coaches and players.

Saracino, along with teammates Brian Potts and Adam Mitchell, helped supervise 30 children ages 11 and 12 from Perinton Youth Hockey. The trio managed all aspects of the camp experience, keeping participants on task during a tightly scheduled agenda that extended over four consecutive days.

This was Saracino’s first time serving as a counselor for Tiger Hockey School. It was Ashley Schoepfel’s fourth year participating in the camp—she had attended a similar camp for players ages 9 and 10.

The seventh grader at Martha Brown Middle School in Fairport, N.Y., says it’s exciting to have an opportunity to build a relationship with the players.

“You always see them on the ice, but here you get to meet them and talk to them,” she says. “They’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong and then they’ll teach you to do it right. And they’re really nice.”

Saracino and his teammates understand how they appear in the eyes of these youngsters, particularly because of their status as Division I athletes, and the responsibility that entails. “The more you do in the right way, the more influence you have on them in a positive manner.”

Beyond campus

Tiger Hockey School got its start in 1999, shortly after Wilson arrived at RIT as head coach. Hills, who served as men’s hockey head coach at SUNY Geneseo in those early years, collaborated with Wilson in forming the youth hockey-training program at Ritter Arena.

“You have some downtime in the summer, so that’s when you run a hockey school,” Hills says. “And I’ve always enjoyed teaching skills.”

That downtime provides another benefit. It’s a chance for the coaches and players to interact with a broader community extending beyond campus borders.

The recent success of RIT hockey, including the men’s appearance at the 2010 NCAA Frozen Four tournament and the women’s first-ever national championship last season, continues to build upon its popularity throughout the Rochester region.

Jeff Nuccitelli ’95 (manufacturing and operations management) appreciates the community connection. He played one season with the Tigers during his years as an RIT student, but recent visits to Ritter Arena were spent in the bleachers watching his son Spencer participate in Tiger Hockey School for the third straight year.

Nuccitelli says the experience is popular with both the young players and the parents.

“There’s strong support from the community to attend these games, and one of the reasons is the camp. It creates a buzz that carries through each and every rink in Rochester, and that generates excitement about RIT hockey. People want to come and see it.”

Build it so they can come

The limited capacity inside Ritter Arena remains one obstacle that keeps more hockey families and other fans in the community from coming out to support RIT during the season. With double the amount of seating, the future Gene Polisseni Center will go a long way toward enhancing the hockey program’s tie to the community.

“When people can’t come and watch the games in comfort, its kind of upsetting,” Saracino says. “We wish we could accommodate everyone who wants to attend. The new rink will be great for the crowd and the community atmosphere that we’re trying to build around our program—not just within RIT but throughout Rochester.”

The new facility, which is scheduled to open in 2014, comes too late for Saracino’s collegiate hockey career. This spring, he graduates with a bachelor’s degree from the E. Philip Saunders College of Business.

But for the students of Tiger Hockey School, the Gene Polisseni Center awaits—and possibly an opportunity to “light the lamp” as a member of RIT hockey.