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After an 11-year hiatus, varsity ice hockey involving public schools returns to Western New York Thursday night.

Four games are on the schedule for the first night of play in the fledgling WNY Varsity Hockey Federation. The league's charter members are a potentially precedent-setting mixture of Msgr. Martin Association schools (Canisius, St. Francis, St. Joe's and Timon) and public schools (Amherst and the three Williamsville schools -- East, North and South).

"This has been a long time in coming," said league president Frank Panek, the coach at Timon. "For the last couple of years, there was a lot of talking and meetings and more talking and meetings, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel. All of a sudden, you could see a sliver of light and now we're here ready to start."

The Buffalo Sabres have played a key role in helping to organize the league. The team annually sponsors the "Super Sunday" championship-game program at Memorial Auditorium and John Mickler, the team's director of amateur hockey development, is the secretary of the new league.

Craig Ramsay and Larry Playfair, former players and current members of the front office, have joined Mickler in speaking to area school boards in support of varsity hockey. The team sponsored a kickoff breakfast for the league Saturday morning in the Aud Club and nearly 300 people attended.

Another key to getting the league off the ground was the participation of the Williamsville district, which agreed to a league with the Catholic schools. Amherst soon followed suit, and anywhere from four to eight more districts could join the league for the 1991-92 season.

"We've always been in favor of competing against anyone on equal terms," said Dr. James Rusin, Williamsville director of health, physical education and athletics. "Being a part of this league, I know everyone is. I've never worked with better people than the Msgr. Martin Association. It's been a great experience for us, and if we're setting a precedent, I'm happy about that."

Msgr. Martin Association schools do not compete in leagues with Section VI teams because the public-school group has long feared alleged recruiting advantages of the private schools. There has been increased play between Catholic and public schools in many sports the past few years, but hockey is the first sport to actually incorporate the Catholic schools into a league.

Thursday's night's schedule features 6:30 and 8:30 double-headers at Audubon and Leisure Rinks. At Audubon, Williamsville North meets Amherst, followed by Williamsville East playing St. Francis. The slate at Leisure matches Canisius and St. Joe's, followed by Timon and Williamsville South.

Varsity hockey died in Section VI in 1979, in large part due to fighting on the ice and in the stands. For this reason, many schools have club programs (not school-sponsored), but remain hesitant about funding a varsity team. The new league promises to clean up its act.

"The whole image of hockey changed during the 1980s," said newly appointed Section VI chairman Pete Tonsoline of Iroquois. "Too many coaches back in the '70s here allowed the kids to emulate the NHL. The Philadelphia Flyers of those days are gone. A lot of people thought that was how hockey was played and that hurt us."

"We're in the educational business," Rusin added. "We're not putting up with any unsportsmanlike behavior. Everyone is watching us and our necks are stuck out from here to Jamestown. Kids who fight will not be a part of this."

The league's handbook, written by Rusin and Panek, backs up that statement. A player's first fight results in an automatic game misconduct and additional two-game suspension -- one-seventh of the season. A second infraction results in suspension for the rest of the season.

Teams can also be ruled ineligible for the playoffs if they receive four disqualification penalties (for fighting or for intent to injure) during the season.

If the first season progresses without incident, league officials already are planning for expansion.

"A lot of the schools are watching and I would like to see the number perhaps doubled," noted Tonsoline. "I think we can easily handle it. There isn't an area in New York State that shouldn't have scholastic hockey. You have winter 4-5 months a year and you have to have hockey.

"We've been working on this for eight years. It will work."

Warriors second in state

Buffalo News small-school poll champion Salamanca finished second in the final State Sportswriters Association Class C-D football poll of the season.

The Warriors (9-1), who posted a 23-0 whitewash of Wilson in the Section VI Class C final at Rich Stadium, finished behind only Watervliet, a Section II power that went 11-0 and completed its season with a 22-15 regional playoff win over Nanuet of Section I.

As has been custom, Section VI teams did not participate in football regionals this year. School officials voted against doing so last spring, in large part because they believed the extension of the fall season would hurt preparation for winter sports.

Elsewhere in the state C-D rankings, Class D champion Hinsdale was ranked seventh and Class D runner-up Frewsburg was ranked 23rd.

In the final Class B rankings, Williamsville South finished sixth, Albion 13th and Grand Island 21st. The Class A rankings will not be finalized until after this Saturday's New York City championship game. Currently, Lockport is 11th and Jamestown is 14th.

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