The Howard Huskies are expanding. At the end of the 2010-11 season, 303 boys were registered in the Maryland-based program. Today that number is 360 — an increase of 16 percent.
Among the many reasons for this increase in registrations is USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
“We’ve grown every year over the last three years, which is good,” Huskies President Bud Bonato said. “A lot of it is we’ve had success at some levels. But we’ve embraced the ADM. Years ago we were one of the first clubs in the [Washington, D.C. metropolitan] area to do cross ice.
“Initially, there was a lot of resistance. It was new to parents. Many felt their kids wouldn’t be playing full ice. Then we had kids doing it and parents really liked it. We’ve done some half ice but more cross ice.”
Currently the Huskies have three cross-ice teams plus five teams each at the Peewee, Bantam and Midget levels.
Both the Midget Blue and Midget Silver teams have advanced to the Maryland state finals (the colors represent the talent levels on each team with blue being the highest level of ability).
“We’ve had success at that age level,” Bonato said. “Every year we’re contenders for the Chesapeake Bay League championship. Another reason why we’ve had success is that we’ve had stability in coaching at the various age levels.”
The Huskies’ Hockey Day in Columbia — which is held at the Columbia (Md.) Ice Rink — proved to be a success earlier this season.
“It was a come-and-try-hockey for free day,” Bonato explained. “We played games, we tested how fast your shot is and we had a three-on-three skills competition. Interspersed in that we had our Midget A team and Squirt team play games and our girls’ team played their first game ever.
“We got the word out. The funny thing is we had some out-of-town teams come and they had such a good time that they took part in it.”
The December holiday period also is a special time for the Huskies.
“Every day around Christmas our club partners with a group called the Patterson Park Stars,” Bonato said. “We invite inner-city kids from under-privileged backgrounds and we have player and parent volunteers that spend a morning with them.
“They have breakfast, meet with Santa and then go out on the ice and play games. We also have gift cards and presents for the kids.”
Howard’s Peewee Blue and Bantam Blue teams each received a “present” of sorts in January when they traveled to Boston for a series of games at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.
“Mike Donnelly coaches our Peewee Blue team and Bob Tibbs is our Bantam Blue coach,” Bonato said. “Mike’s been doing this every year in January. They’ve gone to Canada and all over the place.
“This year they took in a Boston University game and got to meet Mike Eruzione.
Right, THAT Mike Eruzione: the captain of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team.
“The kids had a question-and-answer session with Mike,” said Bonato, “and he was fantastic with them.”
The Howard Huskies also host the Eastern Regional Silver Stix Tournament, which over the last six years has grown to the point where this season 120 teams participated.
“It’s grown so much that we have five facilities and 10 sheets of ice in the tournament,” Bonato said. “It’s a massive undertaking.”
And with good reason, considering that when the Huskies first began hosting the Silver Stix Tournament around Thanksgiving, only six teams at the Mite, Squirt, Peewee and Bantam levels participated.
“If you talk to people, they’ll say it’s become such a part of the fabric of the community,” Bonato said. “It’s done so much for our families. To have all this growth is a lot of fun. Plus, we don’t have to go anywhere and are spending time at the rink.”
At season’s end, the Howard Huskies hold an annual awards banquet that, according to Bonato, invariably draws 600 people to the Turf Valley Country Club.
“We’ll pack the place,” he said. “We have an award that’s presented every year, the Tommy Nicoli Award [Nicoli was a Huskie who died in an automobile accident]. It’s given to a Midget player based on sportsmanship, character and academics.
“Michael Peters won it a couple of years ago. He was the starting goalie this season for Middlebury as a true sophomore and is a great student who has great character.”
The Huskies also present Sportsmanship Awards to a player at the Squirt, Peewee and Bantam levels.
“Kids strive for that,” Bonato said. “The bottom line is we want kids to play no matter what level. Hockey’s a game you can play as an adult.
“The level changes, but you can play a long time. It’s a life-long thing that you can do.”