Niagara Falls High School has had a knack for making history on the basketball court since the merger of LaSalle and old Niagara Falls high schools.
Now the Wolverines are out to make history on the ice.
On Saturday, 1, Niagara Falls will become the first Niagara County high school to play in the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation.
The Wolverines skate into history at 1 p.m. as the road team against Orchard Park in the Amherst Pepsi Center. The Niagara Falls home opener is at 9 p.m. Dec. 7 against Williamsville South at Niagara University's Dwyer Arena.
"We want to start strong in the league and leave a good [first] impression," said junior goalie Nick Wojton, who played the previous two seasons for Niagara Falls when it was in the Western New York Club Hockey League. "We want to do a good job representing our school, the other students and the administration that made this happen."
"Just the prestige that comes with joining the Fed, the kids are excited," Wolverines coach Marc Catanzaro said.
Niagara Falls will play most of its 18 league games in the Pepsi Center. It will play five at Niagara and three at the Buffalo State Ice Arena.
The city school district has not sponsored varsity hockey, including at Niagara Falls High School, since the mid-1980s, according to former Falls High coach Chuck Sirianni.
"Our kids and our parents, they're thrilled, and so am I," school district athletics director Dan Bazzani said of the addition of varsity hockey. "They have been waiting for years. I'm happy we were able to finally bring this thing from a club level into the federation."
Niagara Falls and Clarence are former Western New York Club League programs that made the jump to the 16-team federation this year.
The Fed, as the league is commonly known, formed in 1990 with eight teams: old Monsignor Martin Association varsity league members Canisius, Timon/St. Jude, St. Joseph's and St. Francis, along with public schools Amherst, Williamsville North, Williamsville South and Williamsville East. The Fed is still the only high school league in Section VI in which Catholic and public school programs find a way to co-exist and play each other on a regular basis. Other teams in the league include Kenmore West, Kenmore East, Sweet Home, Amherst and Lancaster.
What's the difference between playing varsity hockey and club hockey at the high school level?
Mostly recognition, as varsity hockey is sponsored by participating schools and receives the same treatment at the schools as other varsity sports. Club teams are not sponsored by school districts, and at some schools are treated like lesser entities since they are not technically affiliated with the school district.
Club league players are responsible for all costs. Varsity hockey programs can cost roughly $20,000 to operate. Some districts that sponsor teams require players to help cover some of the costs. Niagara Falls will not be charging players to play.
The school district is covering the $4,500 fee to the Fed, which covers ice time and officials' pay on game days; practice ice at Hyde Park twice a week; transportation; and home and away jerseys with helmets, gloves and hockey pants to match the school's official colors.
So where did Niagara Falls come up with the money to sponsor varsity hockey?
The closing of Niagara Middle School freed up some funding that had been slotted toward that school's modified boys and girls basketball teams, Bazzani said. Additional cash became available when lack of interest in modified boys volleyball at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels prompted the district to drop that program. Including those coaching positions, the district cut eight assistant-coaching positions to free up the money needed to make hockey a varsity sport.
"These positions were positions I thought were nice to have, but having a chance to bring this program to the federation level, I thought it was worth it to make the cuts," Bazzani said.
"The superintendent was in favor of it as long as I could find money in the budget. We had some areas we could cut and not hurt the overall athletics program. For the first year, the most expensive [items] have been the new uniforms. But with the interest in this area in hockey, . . . it's a great opportunity for our kids."
There are seven juniors, eight sophomores and a freshman on the Wolverines' 22-player roster. There are three goalies vying for the starting job, including sophomore Vincent Merante, a transfer from Niagara-Wheatfield. Niagara Falls had just 15 players on last year's club team.
Niagara Falls will compete in the Fed's small-school division while building up the strength of its program, even though it is a Class AA size school like Kenmore West and Williamsville North -- both of which play in the league's large-school division -- in every other sport.
In two exhibition games last weekend, Niagara Falls went 1-1, with a 6-1 victory over Amherst and a 6-0 loss to former Fed champion Kenmore West. In the latter game, the Falls trailed, 1-0, after two periods and could have been in the lead had it not misfired on several scoring chances in the middle period. The Wolverines admittedly ran out of gas in the third period, a problem they have been working to rectify since that Nov. 18 scrimmage against the 2006 league champions, Catanzaro said.
"That's impressive," said Bazzani, one of an estimated 200 who attended the exhibition clash against Ken West at Hockey Outlet in Wheatfield. "I don't know how good we're going to be, but I'm very impressed with their play."
Does Niagara Falls have a chance to make a title run?
Even being a member of the small-school division -- whose heavyweights include last year's Fed small-school state representative Sweet Home -- will provide the Wolverines with a stiff challenge, and the program has modest goals for its first season.
Still, in a league where three to four teams qualify for the state playoffs based on regular-season standings . . .
"Do I plan on bringing a state championship home in my first year? No," Catanzaro said. "It would obviously be nice to make a run at it. But we're building a program here. To expect that from a first-year program, you can't really put that much pressure on the kids."