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Lowell Lock Monsters Lend Support
To Youth Hockey Program

By Joe O'Shea

A long time ago, in a society far, far away, kids once played hockey for fun. They'd bundle up, toss their skates over their shoulders and troop off to the pond to play shinny without parental supervision.

As America morphed into a hyper-competitive, ultra-organized society, with college hockey scholarships and million-dollar NHL careers on the horizon, pond hockey went the way of soda fountains, Look magazine and drive-in movies. Now, the vast majority of hockey-loving kids are enrolled in leagues, which, unfortunately, often include a psychotic hockey parent and a win-at-all-costs mentality. In these leagues, everyone but the kids have fun.

But some programs, like the Lowell Junior Lock Monsters, do their best to inject the spirit of pond hockey into its games, even if the "pond" is Downtown Lowell's sparkling Tsongas Arena, which overlooks the Merrimack River.

The three-year-old program, which is independently funded, falls under the umbrella of the American Hockey League's Lowell Lock Monsters, an affiliate of the Stanley Cup finalist Carolina Hurricanes. There are currently six teams in this developmental program, from the mite to the bantam levels, and these select squads play in the Northeast Super Eight and Northeast Metro hockey leagues.

Lowell Assistant Coach Tom Rowe, the first American-born skater to net 30 NHL goals, planted the seed for the program. Believing that most hockey programs placed too much pressure on kids, he hatched the Junior Lock Monsters while serving as the parent club's vice president a few years ago.

"The emphasis isn't on winning and losing," says John Pellerin, who coaches the Junior Lock Monsters' squirt minor team. "We're here to develop athletes, to help them become better-skilled players. Having consistent ice time, a high level of instruction and affiliation with an AHL club all provide an atmosphere of fun that other programs may not get."

Thanks to Junior Lock Monsters Program Director Ryan Dugan and parents and coaches, the kids also get a good dose of old-school discipline. Parents and players sign a code-of-conduct contract with the league, and skaters are expected to dress and behave in a certain manner.

"Tom Rowe wanted the kids to have more fun and to develop a winning attitude the right way," says Ryan Dugan, a former Central Catholic star who works full time as a corrections officer. "Through hard work, discipline, respect for the game and respect for the opponent, winning will come naturally."

"We're also an extension of the AHL Lock Monsters," adds Dugan, "so the kids have to represent the club in the proper manner: When going to or coming from games, the kids can't wear their caps backwards and they can't wear earrings, either. When we visit an arena, whether it's a win or a loss, it will be a good experience for the other team and for us. We haven't had a complaint [about bad behavior] yet, which is a testimonial to our kids, coaches and parents."

The discipline imparted by the coaches begins with detailed "lesson plans" for each practice, with each plan aimed at developing a particular skill.

"We're not going to scream and holler, make you skate 15 laps because you missed a shift," says Dugan. "But the coaches don't waste a minute of ice time.

"Parents are paying good money for their kids to develop," he adds, "so we make sure that we work them hard and help them learn new skills. There isn't one kid who doesn't leave the ice without working up a good sweat. When the kids get off the ice, they head straight for the water bubbler."

The hard work might keep the parents happy, but it's the fringe benefits of being a Junior Lock Monster that appeal to the region's kids. In addition to skating at a

top-notch arena, and dressing in the same locker room as future NHL skaters, players often travel around the U.S. and Canada for tournaments. In recent years, Lock Monster teams have visited Lake Placid, the scene of 1980's Miracle on Ice, and have skated down Ottawa's Rideau Canal.

Fringe benefits aside, perhaps the most important part of the junior program's association with an AHL club is the top-notch instruction provided by Lock Monster players and coaches. When the kids are practicing, Lock Monster players will often conduct impromptu mini-clinics.

"They're good teachers and they're from the AHL," says nine-year old Junior Lock Monster Brooks Pellerin, who admires Lock Monster defenseman Ed Hill and center Mike Zigomanis. "They teach us a lot of things about hockey, what's right and wrong: They always tell us to ‘Keep your head up, and try not to check from behind.'"

While the generosity of the Lock Monsters certainly benefits the junior program, the AHL club's cooperation isn't completely altruistic. The program itself is symbiotic: While the junior skaters and coaches are receiving great instruction and guidance, the Lock Monsters are courting a new generation of fans.

"Working with the Junior Lock Monsters gives our players an opportunity to meet a lot of young kids in this area," says Danielle Clermont, who handles community relations for the Lock Monsters. "The players do a great job of serving as role models for the kids, and the kids start to follow the players' careers."

The program, John Pellerin believes, has been a success on all fronts. "The program is meant for the kids. We take 120 children and put them at the top of the pedestal, making sure that their experience in our program is a positive one and that they get the best level of instruction that we can afford. Our goal is for them to become better players and better people by the end of the year.

"As parents, we're elated [with the program]," he adds. "The instruction that the kids get from the Lock Monster players and coaches is great. We couldn't ask for a better one-two punch."

(The Junior Lock Monsters hold tryouts each March. For exact dates and times, visit http://www.lockmonsters.com and click on Junior Lock Monsters, or call (978) 458-7825.

Joe O'Shea is a freelance writer in Boston.


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