* This article originally appeared in the Groton Times and Lyme Times on January 4th, 2007
The Fitch-East Lyme-Ledyard Eagles are truly a rag tag bunch. Separately, the three schools could not field enough players for a team. So each school scrapped together any interested players and put them on one team under the tutorship of Andy Emanuel, who has coached Fitch and Fitch-Ledyard teams in the past.
As the kids on the team come from three different schools, most of them had never met before their first practice. A far more daunting obstacle, many of them had never even laced up a pair of skates.
“We’ve got lots of new skaters,” Emanuel said. “And I don’t just mean new to hockey. We’ve got kids that have never even skated before. So it’s been interesting.”
Anyone watching the Eagles’ first few practices would have witnessed some unintentional comedy. Many kids wobbled around on the ice, carefully avoiding the more skillful players as they whooshed by with the puck.
“It has its moments of frustration,” Emanuel said of playing with such an inexperienced and motley group. “But I just tell them to keep their heads up and keep working hard.”
Emanuel deals with organizational problems before the kids even hit the ice for practice.
“The toughest thing is getting the kids to practice at the same time,” he said. “They’re all coming from three different schools getting out at different times. And we have to watch three different weather zones to decide whether or not we should cancel practice.”
The all-inclusive nature of the Eagles serves as the team’s biggest hitch. But it might also be team’s biggest blessing.
One of the Eagles’ players, a la the Bad News Bears, or more appropriately the Mighty Ducks, is a girl playing in an otherwise wholly boys’ league.
Rachel Baker, a junior on the team from Fitch, would not have a chance to compete along with boys if she were playing any other sport.
One of the more experienced skaters on the squad, Baker does not look out of place on the ice. She races after loose pucks, pins opponents into the boards, and even throws body checks into boys outweighing her by thirty pounds.
“I’m trying to score a few goals and lay a few guys out while I’m at it,” Baker said.
The physical contact of the sport even intrigues her.
“I actually enjoy the intensity and contact of the sport,” she said. “I’ve taken a couple of hard hits. And it’s not that bad. It’s fun.”
For Baker, the multi-school nature of the team has been a fun experience.
“Hey, there are more fans at the games,” she said. “It makes for intense games. People get really excited.”
So far, fans from all three towns have rallied around the Eagles. A recent game against another tri-school team, composed of kids from St. Bernard, Lyme-Old Lyme and Bacon, saw the Dayton rink at Connecticut College heaving with spectators. Fans of both the Eagles and the Saints poured out of the bleachers and around the rink, banging on the glass for big hits and goals.
Although it ended a lop-sided result, with the Saints winning 9-0, the fans enjoyed a hard-hitting, scrappy, and competitive affair. Not many fans were disappointed.
“People come for the hard hitting more than anything else,” Tim Kolnaski, a former Fitch player watching the game in the bleachers, said.
For now, Emanuel focuses more on the improvement of his team than its record.
“St Bernard is a good skating team,” he said. “We made a lot of mistakes and they cost us. We need to get better. But we’re seeing signs of improvement. We played great in the third quarter. We played better team hockey.”
For Emanuel, bringing the three schools together as a functional team represents a difficult but unique challenge. He wants the team to find its own identity.
The team started by reinventing their jerseys. Instead of simply using the Fitch name and colors, which have tagged the front of the jerseys in the past, the Eagles’ shirts combine the colors of all three schools: Fitch’s black, East Lyme’s maroon, and Ledyard’s yellow.
“We’re starting to come together as a team,” Emanuel said. “Three schools, and all these different kids, and we’re coming together. That’s the nicest thing.”