Inaugural year of elite Norwich Hockey Club a success on and off the ice
Norwich ― When forward Felix Antoine Laflamme scored the first goal during the first home game for the Norwich Hockey Club in September, it was like he had scored a hat trick to Norwich Free Academy Head of School Brian Kelly.
The players skated to greet the frenzied fans pounding on the rink glass at the Rose Garden Ice Arena in Norwich.
“We said, ‘My God, we made it. We’re here,’” Kelly recalled of the milestone. “And when that first goal was scored, and to see the team go over to the glass and recognize the students, that was a cool moment for every part of it ― for the culture, for the sport, for the academics for everything. That was an amazing moment.”
Kelly had three goals for the new elite, non-varsity Norwich Hockey Club which attracts international, tuition-paying students while support local youth hockey and introducing the game to students who would not otherwise experience it.
The Norwich Hockey Club’s inaugural season has scored all those goals and more, bringing excitement to campus and putting NFA on the recruiting map for more than hockey, according to Kelly.
It even helped bring NFA’s first Finnish student, female fencer Inka Pallasvesa, to campus when school officials met her on hockey recruiting trip.
She too stands at the glass at hockey games cheering, chanting and pounding along with the dozens of fellow student fans.
Beginning of a new era
Kelly had just arrived at NFA in the first COVID-19 summer of 2020, when campus safety director and veteran hockey coach Wayne Sheehan pitched the idea of creating an elite level team that would be affiliated with USA Hockey. Sheehan said it would attract international students and bring excitement to campus.
Kelly was intrigued but cautious, asking staff to research the idea. By the next spring, NFA was in a fiscal crisis. Enrollment was projected to drop. The pandemic closed international borders, cutting off tuition students.
Hockey was seen as a creative way to attract tuition students. The NFA Board of Trustees gave it a nod, and school leaders commissioned a team logo, with NFA’s familiar red and white colors and throwback interlocking letters. The logo arrived before more than five players had committed to the team, Sheehan said.
Sheehan recruited in Canada and the U.S. He coached players at showcases in Quebec, built relationships with players and offered some a chance to shine and build a new program at NFA and get a better look from college coaches.
“Wayne did a great job really looking at this from a regional perspective,” Kelly said.
Fifteen of the Norwich Hockey Club’s 20 players are from Quebec. The three Connecticut players are from North Stonington, Groton and Moodus. The other two are from Arizona and New Hampshire. None were prior NFA students.
The players pay a total of $33,205 a year which include $14,205 tuition, hockey fees, and host family fees, typically $1,000 per month for room and board. The cost is several thousand dollars less than competing programs, Sheehan said. The hockey fees cover rink time, game officials, uniforms and travel.
NFA staff, meanwhile volunteer their time to the program. Director of Finance and Human Resources Rich Freeman collects the $5 adult and $3 student admission fees at games. Director of Communications Michael O’Farrell is the public address announcer at home games. Associate Principal Stephani Jones runs the scoreboard clock.
On the ice, Norwich Hockey Club has excelled beyond expectations, with a record of 21-8 against elite teams from across the Northeast. Norwich started the season with six straight wins, with scores of 6-1, 6-3, 5-2, 9-1, 4-1 and 6-0.
Players arrived on campus Aug. 20, hit the ice for the first time together Aug. 24 and played their first game Sept. 10. They have 12 games remaining before a playoff weekend in March. In early December, the team ranked 11th of 60 comparable teams based on its schedule and record, Sheehan said.
The Norwich Hockey Club cannot officially be called a USA Hockey Tier-1 team, because it has more than the limit of four international players, Sheehan said. Norwich is a “Tier-1 caliber” team.
Players register for USA Hockey through the club’s collaboration with the Southeastern Connecticut Youth Hockey program and wear the Seahawks logos on their uniform shoulders. The collaboration is designed to help grow youth hockey locally, giving top local players the chance to play elite hockey at NFA.
Fans adore the new team
To the more than 100 raucous NFA students who regularly flock to the Rose Garden Ice Arena for home games, the Norwich Hockey Club is their team.
They fill the first section of bleachers at the Norwich rink. Students chose a pajama theme for the big game on Friday, Nov. 18 against the New Jersey Rockets Hockey Club. The powerhouse Rockets had beaten Norwich 1-0 earlier in the season and fans were eager to even the score.
Giancarlo Malave, 16, an NFA junior of Norwich, said he and his friends come to every home game. He admitted they knew nothing about hockey before this season.
“No, definitely not,” Malave said. “None of us were (hockey fans). These guys are so cool. They’re just all so nice. We want them to know: ‘Yeah! We’re here.’ We want them to hear us.”
“I knew nothing about hockey,” added Ella Bean, 17, of Preston. “I still know nothing about hockey. I come to most of the games with my friends.”
The students cheered wildly when it looked like Norwich scored on a short-handed breakaway. They yelled choice words to the referee who called off the goal. They yelled and pounded throughout the game, When players paired up in a bit of a scrum, fans yelled, “They (the Rockets) started the fight!”
Norwich won the game in overtime 5-4.
The fans are learning. When the horn blew to end the first period at the first home game, confused fans asked Freeman, the NFA finance director, if it was halftime. When he said hockey has three periods, one asked: “So, how many halftimes are there?”
The Carney family of Preston needed no hockey pointers. Family members are huge Boston Bruins fans. Elizabeth and Raymond Carney provide the home for Pallasvesa, the Finnish fencer, who stood at the rink glass chanting and cheering. The Carneys hope to host a hockey player next year.
“For a new team, they play really well together,” Elizabeth Carney said, “and they stay together off the ice too. And they go to other sports to support the other teams.”
Team has its own broadcaster
Scotty Bonner’s regular perch is on the back row of bleachers at center ice at the Rose Garden Ice Arena, with headset and camera. Whether it’s little kids playing youth hockey or the elite Norwich Hockey Club, Bonner broadcasts home games on his SoLu Broadcasting YouTube Channel.
Bonner, 49, of Niantic, worked for 22 years as a nurse before launching his second career broadcasting hockey. He started doing audio games for fun when his daughter played youth hockey in Raleigh, N,C. He became the voice of University of North Carolina hockey in 2017. When the family moved to Niantic in 2019, his daughter, Sophie Bonner, now 13, joined Southeastern Connecticut Youth Hockey Seahawks.
“I started doing Seahawks games right away,” he said. His son, Luke, helps with camera work. SoLu Broadcasting is named for his two children.
The Seahawks pay Bonner to call from the split-rink Mite games on up. He broadcasts hockey for the Coast Guard Academy and Connecticut College and Conn College basketball and “a little lacrosse and soccer.”
Along with his signature hockey calls, Bonner educates fans on strategy and player positioning, teaching newcomers the finer points of the game.
Bonner grew up playing roller hockey on Long Island, a devoted New York Islanders fan. He called games for fun for the roller hockey league.
“I didn’t do anything with broadcasting for 20 years,” Bonner said. “I have dreamt of doing this my whole life.”
Bonner estimated he now does 300 games per year.
“He’s amazing,” Sheehan said of Bonner. “Our parents love him.”
Players return the school’s love
Norwich Hockey Club defenseman Julien Avignon-Bourque, a senior from Melbourne, Quebec, said he never experienced such fan support back home.
“The spirit is pretty amazing, to see them at the games,” Avignon-Bourque said. “Most of them don’t know (hockey). We’re trying to teach them about the game.”
Goalie Noah Koscher, a junior from Montreal, said high school spirit in the United States is much different than in Canada.
“In Canada, I don’t think schools really go see sports games,” Koscher said. “Our football games, people just go there to talk in the corner and not even look at the game. In hockey games, we would get the five girls in our class.”
Norwich Hockey Club players are reciprocating the support, attending as many other sports as possible, from football to girls and boys soccer, volleyball and now boys and girls basketball games and pep rallies.
O’Farrell, NFA communications director, said hockey players “go to everything” on campus, not just sports. Koscher said about half the team participates in Project Outreach, the largest student service organization on campus.
“We’re going to try to keep in touch with every sport,” Avignon-Bourque said.
Whether it’s a game day or not, the hockey players stand out on campus. Most games are on weekends, so players wear the required suits and ties to school Fridays. That turned heads early in fall before students got used to it.
“Whether home or away, we’re wearing suits to the game,” Avignon-Bourque said. “It’s uniform, and it looks good, and the pros do it.”
Koscher said everyone can recognize “the hockey guys” on non-game days, too. They do not wear jeans, but sport sweats, “flops,” a hat and hoodie.
“I don’t really wear jeans ever,” Koscher said. “I have two pairs, and I haven’t touched them. My mom told me jeans was a big part of U.S. culture, but I never wear them.”
Host family life
When recruiting, Coach Sheehan promotes NFA’s academic opportunities, the dozens of college credit courses, a college-like campus with a marine science lab, audio and TV production facilities, an art school and the school’s own art museum.
Another draw is that players live with host families rather than in dorms.
Andrea and Brian Kelly ― an NFA teacher, not the head of school ― of Lisbon were asked in summer by Mykel Bridget Czaja, NFA director of student services and Norwich Hockey Club board member, if they would host a hockey player.
It was a difficult, emotional decision, Andrea Kelly said. Their 14-year-old son, Joseph, died of brain cancer in 2012. Andrea called their 22-year-old daughter, Katie, a teacher in Denver. She was all for it, offering her bedroom instead of her brother’s room.
Andrea Kelly, a teacher in Voluntown, said they met player Julien Avignon-Bourque in August. The two sat in the Kellys living room.
“We just started talking, and then he smiled,” Andrea Kelly said. “And I said, ‘we’re going to be OK.’”
Koscher joined the family a few weeks later.
The two players love the arrangement. They talk to their parents daily, and the Kellys regularly ask their parents for direction. Brian Kelly drives the two players to 5:15 a.m. practice and to school.
The family hosted the players’ families for Canadian Thanksgiving Oct. 28. The entire team came. They played Wiffle ball in the back yard. Koscher’s friends visited for American Thanksgiving.
Friendly competitions have emerged between the players and the host parents.
“Noah and I compete against each other in Wordle,” Andrea Kelly said.
“I wouldn’t call it a competition at this point,” Koscher responded, snickering at her retort that she had won the last game.
Andrea Kelly admitted Avignon-Bourque is a better cook than she is. The teenager responded: “That wasn’t really a competition.”
Katie Kelly often face times with her family and talks with the two boys.
“She wants to know what’s going on. What’s going on with the girls,” Andrea Kelly said. “All the important things a big sister would ask. They might be bigger, but she bosses them around.”
Playing for a bigger goal
Koscher, a junior, hopes to return to NFA next year. A straight-A student, he said NFA has many more courses than Canadian high schools, and he is enjoying delving into U.S. history.
Avignon-Bourque hopes to be drafted by a junior hockey program and then play college hockey.
Coach Sheehan said college hockey players mostly rise through junior hockey, rather than straight from high school. On Dec. 9, Sheehan took the team to visit American International College in Springfield to watch its Division 1 team play. AIC has potential interest in a couple Norwich players, Sheehan said. The college coach met with the team and discussed the college application process, recruiting and the demands of playing NCAA hockey.
Only five Norwich Hockey Club players are seniors, so Sheehan hopes to have the basis for a powerhouse team for the 2023-24 season.
Based on the early success, NFA officials are being asked to add a girls’ team, an Under-16 age team or a freshman U-14 team. Those are future plans, Sheehan said. Next year, NFA will solidify its elite-level team.
“A girls’ team is on the horizon,” Sheehan said. “Girls hockey for USA Hockey is outpacing boys right now in terms of enrollment.”
Head of School Kelly will depart NFA in June. But he said the international recruiting model for hockey could work to recruit top science, arts or language students, expanding the base of tuition-paying students.
“We’re very excited at year one,” Freeman, the school finance director, said. “It’s a creative new way to attract kids. It’s a new program that benefits the entire school and the community.”