Thanks To ‘The Hank’

One Man’s Revolutionary Efforts Help House Program Thrive In Historic Massachusetts Town

As a former vice president at the National Hockey League, Bryant McBride traveled around the country, seeing hundreds of youth hockey leagues up close and personal. Some of them made him cringe; others were dynamic and inspiring.

But his local league, Lexington Bedford Youth Hockey, excelled above them all, especially the in-house program. Kids didn't have to travel far to go to games; all skill levels could participate, and good sportsmanship and fair play mattered more than goals. And the in-house program ran like clockwork, from the buzzer every minute and a half for line changes to the immaculate boards dividing the rink. 

When McBride first joined the program with his young children a few decades ago, he was surprised at the organization and thoughtfulness behind the popular program. He quickly found out that it was largely due to one man, in-house commissioner Hank Manz. 

Manz, 77, a tall bearded man with a trademark baseball cap and long stride, was a legend around the rink. He seemed to be everywhere at once, checking on the time clock, gathering up loose pucks under the bleachers, climbing the stairs to the referee room. 

"I thought he had a twin brother at one point," joked McBride. 

Manz strode around the Hayden rink in Lexington, Mass., as if he owned it, and indeed, he almost did. He was there at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays to unlock the door to the rink, checking on ice conditions, getting goalie gear ready, and most importantly, never forgetting to congratulate a player on their first time goal. 

It's thanks to Manz that LBYH is not about the game of hockey, but about an exercise in building self-esteem and bonds with fellow players, whether it's a skillful 10-year-old or a newbie on the ice. 

With 10-14 teams a season, and 16 or so kids on each team over 30 years of in-house hockey, Manz and his volunteers have impacted a few thousand youth with deep and rich memories and experiences.

"The mix of levels and ages and how the younger players look up to and enjoy playing with the older, better players stood out for me when we moved to Lexington," said LBYH board member Brad Conlin, whose daughter and two sons played in the league. "This is pretty unique and helps build community. You might have three or four siblings playing on the same team."

Manz knows that ice hockey is the great equalizer. No one is born knowing how to skate, and almost everyone falls down the first time they step on the ice. It develops resilience and muscle learning, iteration after iteration. 

For all the time that Manz spent at the rink - and hours away from it, planning and strategizing, surprisingly this New Haven, Conn., native didn't grow up playing a lot of hockey. He stopped playing when a young friend got injured and didn't take it up again till he was an adult. He scored his first goal when he was 41. When he told a young LBYH player that, the kid responded, "Geez, I'm only 7 and I've already scored a 100 goals," Manz said with a chuckle. 

Manz, a former software engineer, was also a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy, where he said he learned the importance of sharing knowledge and working together.

"No one can do the job alone," said Manz, who applied Navy lessons such as being methodical and thoughtful to LBYH's in-house hockey program. 

He created systems for putting up the rink divider panels that cross the rink, increasing their longevity, and implemented a new scoreboard method, among other details.

And Manz is big into recognition, understanding that kids love trophies. There's a trophy for young novice beginner players (Dream Big award); for the first goal; first time being goalie, and, at the annual banquet, the last-place team, which gets a bigger trophy than the first-place team. 

"It's a recognition that everyone is playing the game," Manz said. "The last-place team probably put in more effort than anyone else."

Manz laughingly calls himself a "fake townie," having lived in the historic colonial town of Lexington a little over three decades. He's been a selectman, grand marshal of the town's parade, Little League volunteer, scoutmaster, and much more. 

Only recently has he slowed down, having been diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer, probably from asbestos fibers he was exposed to during the Navy. The cold of the rink, which never bothered him before, really got to him, and he's had to avoid crowds because of infection risk. He's been cleaning out his basement, where piles of hockey stuff are stored between seasons.

"I put out 30 hockey sticks on the curb recently, and they got snatched up right away," Manz said. 

The rink legend has been homebound more lately, but laughingly warns "I'll be back."

In the meantime, the Hayden rink is empty, as the hockey season has come to a close, but Manz is already thinking ahead to 2020-21. And his contribution is being acknowledged by LBYH, who have instituted several "The Hank" awards in his honor. Characteristically, Manz refuses to take any credit for his LBYH achievements. 

"None of us can run a hockey program alone." he said. "Win or lose, we're all in this game together."

Cindy Atoji Keene played on women adult hockey leagues, including the aptly named Mothers on Edge and is a freelance writer and editor in Lexington, Mass. 

 

 

Issue: 
2020-06

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