Lockport High School will be in a familiar role in unfamiliar surroundings Friday when it hits the ice for the start of the New York State Club Hockey Large School Tournament.
The Lions will be clear-cut underdogs when they open the three-day, eight-team tournament in the West Seneca Recreation Center against St. Mary's of Manhasset, Long Island -- a program that has won this event each year since Lockport's current nine seniors were in junior high.
But the Lions aren't underdogs simply because they're opening against a Gaels program that has won the title 10 times, including the last seven in a row. Lockport has overcome the disadvantages of not having a true youth hockey developmental program or rink in its home city to become the first batch of Lions since 1991 to advance to the state championships.
"I think it's amazing," said 13th-year coach and Lockport City Judge Bill Watson. "It's like taking away a basketball hoop within 30 miles of your city and then asking your basketball team to be one of the best in the state . . ."
"We are very lucky to have gotten players in Lockport who have had some competitive experience at the youth level," Watson said. "Many of our players that we have in the program, we're teaching them ice hockey for the first time when they're in ninth grade. We have kids come from roller hockey and just some kids who were used to playing pond hockey during the winters."
The City of Lockport has been devoid of youth hockey since 1987, when the program disbanded at the Kenan Center due to increased player insurance costs, Watson said. The Lions practice at Hockey Outlet in Wheatfield. They play their home games at the Hyde Park Ice Pavilion in Niagara Falls.
>No surprise factor
Odds are the Lions won't sneak up on St. Mary's. A team doesn't win that many championships by taking opponents for granted. Then again, Lockport is perhaps the most unlikely foe for any of the Western New York and Long Island teams participating in the event.
The Lions didn't win the Western New York Club League Large Schools championship. They didn't win the Sectional crown, either. But a Lions program that experienced the thrill of victory just once during the 2004-05 season won enough big games during a 15-15-2 campaign to give itself a chance to pull off the worst-to-first achievement so rarely accomplished in sports.
The feat is even more historic considering Lockport youngsters who want to play hockey have to travel outside the city limits to satisfy their desires. While there technically still is a Lockport-based youth program called the Tigers, it now consists of just enough players to form one team for participation in a house league at Grand Niagara.
"I think one of the keys to our success this year is most of these kids have played the better part of two seasons together, and they really stuck together during the difficult times," Watson said. "They never gave up. They really stayed committed to the team game."
The Lions earned their spot in the state tournament by beating Hutch-Tech, 3-2, and tying Western New York Club League champion Niagara-Wheatfield, 2-2, during pool play of the sectional tournament. Lockport lost in the sectional semifinals to eventual champion Orchard Park.
Lockport's 1991 state qualifier featured a clique of players who were the last links to the youth program that made the Lions a perennial Western New York Club League contender from the 1970s through 1991.
This edition of the Lions bonded the old-fashioned way -- enduring a series of bone-jarring checks and beatings prior to embarking on the current season with three lofty goals:
Qualify for the Club League playoffs.
Qualify for sectionals.
Earn a bid to the state tournament.
Mission accomplished, but there's still plenty of hockey yet to be played.
>"Try our hardest"
"We're not really favored," said senior goalie Richie LaTona, a second team WNY Club League Large School All-Star who has a .910 save percentage and a 2.50 goals-against average.
"We're just going to try our hardest," LaTona said. "That's all we can really do. If we win a few games, great. If not, we're still going to have fun. It's just a great honor to . . . qualify for the state tournament."
Added senior forward Pat Reynolds: "If we win one game or if we win nothing, it's just the experience of being there. We know we have to come out hard just because the teams are going to be so much better than they were at sectionals."
The eight teams will be divided into two divisions during the tournament. The top two teams from each after pool play advance to next Sunday's final four. The semifinals and championship will be played the same day.
Besides St. Mary's, local rivals North Tonawanda and West Seneca East will be in Lockport's division. The Lions' 3 p.m. Friday game against St. Mary's is the first of three games in two days. Lockport has a day-night doubleheader against NT and West Seneca East on Saturday. The Lions play the Lumberjacks at 8 a.m. and the West Seneca team at 6 p.m.
"I don't know if the kids realize the opportunity that they have or the opportunity they've earned for themselves," said Watson, a 1986 Lockport graduate. "From the coaching perspective, every year I look at it from the historical aspect of what hockey used to be in Lockport. I don't think the kids see it that way. I think they're just playing hard, having fun and enjoying the ride.
"The Kenan Center actually gave Lockport an unfair advantage in certain years because the Lockport kids grew up playing together, where most high school teams pull their kids together from a number of different travel leagues. The Lockport kids usually played together at an elite level right from Mites up through their high school careers."
Lockport yields an average of 35 shots per game, but LaTona anchors a defensive-minded team that looks to keep games close with hopes of winning them late by being a solid last line of defense.
Senior defenseman Ken Norwich earned First Team All-Star laurels, while the program should be in good shape on the back end next season with juniors Dan Barrancotta and John Sheehan, sophomores Matt Stawicki and Wes McCoy and freshman Ryan Neidrauer -- all of whom play a regular shift.
Senior Matthew Milliman, a Second Team All-Star, led Lockport with 19 goals and 30 points, while classmate Ryan Lux tallied 16 goals and 26 points.
Starpoint is the only other Niagara County school besides Lockport and NT to advance to the state tournament. Starpoint will participate in the small-school version of the event Friday through Sunday in Binghamton.