To say hockey is an enjoyable part of life for the Hester household in Pittsford, N.Y., would be like saying Mike Modano has enjoyed a decent career in the NHL.
Thomas Creek Ice Arena in nearby Fairport is pretty much the Hesters’ second winter home.
Eight-year-old Connor Hester plays on the Perinton Youth Hockey Mite travel team. Mitchell, 11, plays for Perinton’s Peewee house league team. And 13-year-old Griffin, the oldest son of Karen and David Hester, skates on Perinton’s Bantam house league team.
“Luckily we live three minutes away,” Karen Hester says with a big smile.
This season, the travel commitments aren’t nearly what they have been in the past, either. Mitchell and Griffin both were travel players last year, but for various reasons decided they’d rather play house league hockey.
Griffin wants to someday play varsity football at his school, McQuaid Jesuit High, in Rochester. There was no way he could commit to a travel hockey schedule and still be on the eighth-grade football team.
“I knew I could play house and not miss so many practices or games,” Griffin says. “It’s not so intense like travel, but it’s still competitive and it’s still fun.”
His hockey teammate, Pat Sheridan, made the same choice. He wanted to play football at Fairport High, so he left the travel hockey program after three years and went back to the house league.
“It’s still a lot of fun and you have a lot more free time,” Sheridan says before his game in the eighth annual Wishbone Classic, a Thanksgiving weekend house tournament that this year attracted 44 teams in seven divisions (A and B in Mite, Peewee and Bantam, and Squirt A).
House-league players and their parents are discovering that many of the same benefits that come with playing travel hockey, things such as the life lessons learned by playing a team game — teamwork, leadership and sportsmanship — are still available close to home. They can still get the thrill that comes with playing hockey, but they also have the freedom to be involved in other sports or extracurricular activities.
The time to do more than just play hockey is exactly why Griffin’s brother, Mitchell, decided he’d rather play Peewee house.
“Mitchell didn’t like the travel commitments,” Karen Hester explains. “We were basically in Buffalo at least once a week, so that’s a five-hour time commitment right there (with drive time, plus the game). He thought he was missing out on too much other stuff, social things.
“Plus, he thought he always had more fun when he played in the house league. He just wasn’t enjoying travel as much, and when it stops being fun, it’s time to make a change.”
There’s plenty of fun this year.
“There’s a lot less money spent, too,” Griffin Hester says. “It gives our parents a break.”
Indeed, travel hockey requires a much greater financial commitment than house. Ken Newkirk of Perinton figures it will cost between $750 and $1,000 for his son, Jake, to be the starting goalie on the Peewee A house team. If he played travel, he would be spending muc more.
“I told him, ‘No matter how good he is, he won’t play travel,’ ” Ken says. “But you never know.”
Very true, as Ken Newkirk knows firsthand. He never thought he’d be saying “Yes” when Jake said he wanted to try out for hockey. A goalie in lacrosse, he was intrigued by hockey.
“He’s been dying to get in, and as a parent you finally give in,” Ken admits. “I’m having so much fun watching his games. It’s been a great experience.”
Actually, it has been the best experience, says 14-year-old Steve MacDonald, who plays for the Livingston Blues Bantam house team.
“I like this better than travel,” MacDonald says. “I just think it’s more fun. You get to play with your friends, teammates that you’ve been playing with forever. Travel is more complicated.”
Especially when it comes to devoting time to hockey. Paul Lemoncelli of Livonia, N.Y., has been coaching for eight years in house leagues, first for Monroe County Youth Hockey and now with the Livingston Blues. He works in the insurance industry and spends much of his week on the road.
As much as he loves coaching, the demands of travel hockey would have been a burden for his family.
“I haven’t wanted to travel on weekends, but this is a great way to make the winter go by,” says Lemoncelli, whose son, Lucas, is on the team.
He knows coaching in house leagues is a little less stressful, too. Parents aren’t as overbearing. They don’t ask the coach to let their son play with “so and so” on the first line, or wonder why he’s not with the first power-play unit.
“Friends of mine who coach travel say they have to deal with that,” Lemoncelli says. “The more money invested, the bigger the commitment for family. And when ‘Johnny’ doesn’t do well, they let ‘Johnny’ know, and they let the coach know.”
Yet house players still enjoy the tournament atmosphere. The Wishbone Tournament at Thomas Creek provides players and parents the same “road-trip” experience as travel hockey.
“You play a lot of hockey in a short period, so you develop cohesiveness,” Lemoncelli says. “The kids spend more time together, and so do the parents. The parents will bond as well. It becomes a social experience for the parents and the kids without the pressure and intensity that sometimes accompanies travel hockey.”
“My kids aren’t in this to get scholarships, they’re in it to have fun,” Karen Hester says.
That’s why Jim McLaughlin of Dansville, N.Y., coaches in the Livingston Blues house program.
“I’d rather have my son play as much as he can, to play the game of hockey,” McLaughlin says. “If you’re the last player [talent-wise] on the travel team roster, you’re not out on the power play or penalty kill. When one of your players jacks someone up and gets 2 and 10 (in penalty time), and the coach needs someone to serve the penalty, guess who it is? It’s not his best player.
“You play the game of hockey to have fun, not to say you’re on the ‘travel’ team.”