The tallest spot on Aquidneck Island, known as “The Hilltop,” offers breathtaking views of Newport Harbor and off in the distance the Atlantic Ocean.
Even in the heart of winter, the harbor is alive as sailboats of various sizes dot the horizon with their colorful jibs ballooning in the breeze.
Located 30 miles south of Providence, R.I., Newport is best known for its opulent mansions that line the coastline, and for world-class sailing. Home to the America’s Cup, the oldest trophy in sports, Newport is the sailing capitol of the United States. It’s a place where yachtsmen take on a certain rock star status, and kids learn how to jibe and tack before they learn to ride a bike.
Still, many locals put their sea legs in dry dock during the winter months and spend their days inside the Stephen P. Cabot and Archer Harman Ice Center on the campus of St. George’s prep school.
On this Sunday morning, the first wave of parents make their way past the volunteers selling Dunkin’ Donuts and hot coffee in the lobby and into the main rink adorned with banners of the New England prep school circuit.
Kids of different shapes and sizes hustle into locker rooms and into their blue and sea foam green Newport Whalers uniforms, ready to show their stuff to parents and peers alike. For today is the third and final day of Hockey Weekend Across America, and Newport is celebrating with a skills competition that would make the NHL proud.
"You get them to fall in love with the game, and the game takes care of itself."
As Ali Lavada and Cam Hebert take the ice, coaches Kevin Sullivan, Brad Read, Frank Toner and John Stahl tinker with their starting positions, giving Lavada, a Mite C player, a sizable lead over her Bantam opponent. On the whistle, the pair sprints toward the end boards, around the net and race the length of the ice. Satisfied with the head start given to the younger skaters, the coaches call out the rest of the 52 players to the applause of a packed house.
“The whole premise is to set it up so the oldest kids are really competing against the youngest kids,” says Sullivan, a Massachusetts native who now calls Newport home. “How cool is it when a 6-year-old ends up beating the kid who is just about ready to shave?”
That’s what happened last year as Dylan Stahl, a pint-sized Mite, knocked off 6-foot-2 Bantam Ned Murphy in a race that went to the wire.
Through the fastest skater, sure shot and breakaway competitions, players of all ages joke and fidget, anxiously waiting their turn to compete. The competition lasts the better part of 90 minutes, a record compared to last year’s three-hour marathon.
“The skills competition brings the entire community together, from the littlest kid to the biggest,” says Sullivan. “Their lives may never cross when they’re away from the rink, but when they’re on the ice together they’re in the same fraternity.”
It’s that sense of community that has allowed Newport to thrive.
No matter their size or skill level, players from the Newport Whalers youth hockey program all found a way to compete and have fun during a skills competition as part of Hockey Weekend Across America.
Other towns throughout The Ocean State have written long hockey histories, from the storied prep program at Mount St. Charles to a number of Olympians and NHL players such as Clark Donatelli (Providence), Brian Lawton (Cumberland), Sara DeCosta (Warwick), David Emma (Cranston) and Bryan Berard (Woonsocket).
Newport may not share the same hockey heritage, but it is quickly and quietly making a name for itself. With more than 700 kids playing everything from Mite house to Bantam travel, Newport boasts the largest youth hockey program in the state. Spurring this growth is a dedicated group of volunteers that works hard to cultivate the next wave of players by employing some creative measures to increase its ranks by increasing the fun factor.
“It all starts at that learn to skate level with the 5-year-olds,” says Sullivan, who coaches the Squirt B team and helps with one of the Peewee C squads. “You get them to fall in love with the game, and the game takes care of itself.”
At the heart of Newport’s growth is the Cool Kids Skate program, which is designed to get kids interested in hockey at a young age. The program centers around 3-on-3 Mite cross-ice hockey, an approach that didn’t sit well with many of the parents when it was first introduced.
“There was a lot of push back from parents, but three years later they love it,” says Sullivan. “All those naysayers, not a single one of them has a bad thing to say now. Once people see the excitement out there and that their kids were touching the puck and having fun, it doesn’t take long at all.”
The second part of the program is an aggressive campaign that asks youth hockey players to sell their game by bringing a friend to the rink for a free skate.
Despite the sprawling oceanfront mansions and local yacht clubs, the median household income in Newport is slightly above $40,000. That means new and creative ways of attracting kids to hockey have been tied in with making it affordable.
“People think we all live in mansions and we’re all rich,” says Sullivan. “We certainly play at a nice rink, but it’s not what you think.”
Hockey has been enjoying fair winds and following seas in Newport as the game continues to sail along on a smooth course. For people who have the sea in their blood, they have taken to the thrill of having ice under their feet.
“It’s a tough transition from boating season to hockey season,” says Sullivan.
“We start at the same time every year but people are always asking why are we starting earlier this year.
“Even so, there’s been more excitement about hockey over the last five years.”