By Mike Madera
The 2016-2017 West Haven Youth Hockey season is under way and many changes are in place. While the abundance of change is ongoing, the two people leading the way are not new to the area. Behind the leadership of Joe Morrell, who is the Director of Hockey operations at Bennett Rink, and new league President Kyle Bensen, the program has taken a quick change for the better. Morrell and Bensen are no strangers in town, with Morrell the long-time high school hockey coach, and Bensen running the iconic Whitie Bensen hockey and lacrosse equipment store.
For Bensen, he returns to his roots as he began his career as a player in the league’s inaugural season in 1968. His mission is easily stated. “I feel it is time to give back to the organization that provided me with a solid foundation, not only in the world of hockey, but in life in general,” Bensen said in a release to the league upon his appointment as President. “I had success and heartache throughout my tenure as a player in West Haven Youth Hockey, but the one constant was the positive reinforcement I received from all the dedicated volunteer moms, dads, and coaches with whom I came in contact. Most importantly, I learned how to be a part of a team. The lesson of learning to win or lose with dignity and class was foremost.”
With numbers continually dwindling over the past several years, the league has implemented many new facets of hockey to raise awareness and bring in a greater number of players at all levels. The initial focus was on the Learn to Play and Mite programs and the numbers have increased tremendously in a few short months. Through the West Haven Youth Hockey League and Whitie Bensen, a tremendous opportunity was afforded to potential new players and families.
The Learn to Play program began September 17 and is at no cost for the first 12 weeks. Not only is the program free for three months, a package subsidized by the West Haven Youth Hockey League through Whitie Bensen Athletic Equipment and only available for West Haven Youth Hockey Learn to Play participants offers equipment, including helmet with cage, elbow and shin pads, gloves, stick and skates (up to size 13), for $75 and the same package with skates up to size 5 for $90. Jerseys are also provided by the league.
The Learn to Play Program, which is run by Learn to Play Director Callan McKeon and currently has 54 kids, has often been rebuffed by some people as the time slot was often viewed as too early in the morning. McKeon’s West Haven program makes it family friendly, starting at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sunday. “This program is vital to the life of West Haven youth hockey,” McKeon, who is also the Coaching and Player Development Director of the league, said. “This is how we get kids into our program and keep them in the sport. Without this program, West Haven youth hockey would not exist in a few years.“A few years ago, we had very low numbers, fewer than 20 kids, which we are now feeling the effects of in our older age groups. By having the amount of kids we have now, we hope to regain our numbers in our travel program to back what they used to be five or ten years ago.”
Morrell, who also runs the highly successful street hockey league over the summer, has also been a part of the high school team’s Great Skate and Midnight Madness, which attracts a high number of youth hockey players to the event, and Skate with Santa. Morrell is leading the way to rid the myth hockey at a young age is not affordable or too early for kids to participate. "We need to get more West Haven kids involved," Morrell said. "We are trying to get as many West Haven kids as we can to grow the game. Not every West Haven kid plays. The low numbers affect us on the high school level. We need to get more on the youth level. We have 52 kids in the Learn to Play which is a high number. We are happy with that. If we can get 50 kids every year, it only helps as the kids get older." Morrell and Bensen do not just have an eye out for the younger kids. They are out to grow and improve the entire league.
Just one month into the season, kids and teams have the opportunity to skate up to six times a week with skills and drills sessions on Monday’s and Friday’s, two practices a week, and two games a week. "When Kyle Bensen and I came in, we listened to what people were saying," Morrell said of the skills and drills. "We told everyone we would do the best we can with their concerns. One of them was ice time and they wanted more. With this, the kids can go on the ice two practices and two skills and drills a week at no extra charge. I coach the Bantams and I tell those kids the only way to get better is to get on the ice. The only way to do that is by skating." The skills and drills targets every player, with goaltending clinics every Monday, as well as sessions for forwards and defensemen on Monday and Friday. The clinics are being run by well-respected coaches from the high school, collegiate, or Olympic level. "It is important to bring in different people," Morrell said. "They bring a different look and energy level. Chris Shore and Jim Lafo are alternating the specialty skills, emphasizing a small part of the game coaches may not be able to get to in practice." Some of the instructors thus far have been Tim McWade, Jamie Sharretto, J.P. Withington and Lisa Giovanelli.
“The similarity between building a house and a youth hockey organization is that a solid foundation is crucial to the longevity of the product,” Bensen said. “Our initial thrust was towards building the numbers in our clinic. This would increase our enrollment in the long run. Secondly, we wanted to improve the skills of our current players by offering free clinics twice a week that focus on specific skill sets. This, in turn, will attract outside interest to join our league. And lastly, we wanted to convey a positive work ethic to be instilled by our coaches. The best teachers in life are the ones that are passionate about their craft. People will be the biggest influence in these kids’ lives, not wins and losses.” Giovanelli, recently named the General Manager of the Connecticut Whale, previously was the assistant coach of the Quinnipiac Bobcats, and has won five gold medals, three silver and two bronze with the U.S. Women's Inline Hockey Team. During her impressive collegiate career with the Northeastern Huskies, Giovanelli was named the most valuable player of the Beanpot Tournament, and was the team’s assistant captain her senior year. Drills such as stick handling, edge work, breakaways, one-timers, faceoffs and defensive work have been run by Shore, Morrell, Bensen, West Haven assistant varsity coach Jim Lafo, Greg Mondo, Bruce Giovanelli and former Yale star Jim Morrissey. “My goal in working for our West Haven Youth Hockey community is to provide an environment that allows our boys and girls to grow as athletes, as teammates and as people,” Bensen said. “I'd like the kids to be able to look back on this period of their lives and remember not only wins or losses, but the people they met and the lasting relationships they built. Ideally, I'd like them to enjoy the experience so much that they'll still be playing at my age!”