NIAGARA FALLS -- After a three-decade-long absence, the Niagara Falls School District will bring ice hockey back to the fold as a sport.
Athletic Director Daniel J. Bazzani said the district will sponsor an interscholastic varsity hockey team at Niagara Falls High School this winter for the first time in his tenure.
He also said the district is offering hockey at its summer sports camp for the first time. About 100 middle and high school students are participating in the program, which is being held free on weekday afternoons in Niagara University's Dwyer Arena.
"It's the only new interscholastic sport we're adding this winter," Bazzani said. "We did it because there's been a tremendous interest in doing that over the past four or five years. We've had a number of petitions requesting it, and we felt it was a good sport to add. . . . Also, the area Federation Hockey League is growing and I thought the timing was right."
He said Marc Catanzaro has been coaching a club hockey team using the school's Wolverine name and its blue and gold colors for several years, "but it's never been funded by the school district. Until now, the hockey team was independent and not associated with the school. We didn't pay the coaches or finance it in any way. The junior varsity-age team will remain a club team, but the varsity will be a school team."
Bazzani said he had wanted to suggest forming a varsity hockey team two years ago, but the district's financial situation and job cuts made for bad timing.
"This year," he said, "even though we were facing some budget problems, I was able to eliminate eight coaching positions to help come up with the $25,000 to $35,000 we needed to pay for varsity hockey."
The school board budgeted $35,000 to cover varsity hockey during the upcoming school year.
Cuts included the elimination of two modified basketball coaches -- one for boys and one for girls -- because Niagara Middle School is being closed.
The other cuts included the elimination of an assistant golf coach; two assistant tennis coaches, one for the spring and one for fall tennis seasons; a modified volleyball coach for lack of student interest at the middle school level; an assistant cross country coach; and an assistant basketball coach.
Hockey practice will start around the first week of November. The district will post the coaching position soon. Bazzani said he plans to have a coach named in late September.
He also said school hockey players will have to abide by school rules, including academic eligibility.
"When they played club hockey," he said, "they could fail everything and still play. Now they will have to pass four core subjects, plus phys ed, to be eligible."
Catanzaro, the club hockey coach, said he doesn't see that as a problem.
"I believe our team's overall grade point average is around the third highest among interscholastic teams at Niagara Falls High School," he said.
Catanzaro said he plans to apply for the varsity coaching job, but he added that's only secondary to his efforts to come up with an official high school hockey team. He said his main objective has been to give teens a chance to play hockey at the high school level and showcase their talents.
Even at the club games, attendance has often been about 100 spectators, Catanzaro said. Club games are held at the Hyde Park Ice Pavilion. Varsity home games will be at Dwyer Arena.
Niagara Falls High School's varsity hockey team expects to play against teams from Clarence, Amherst, Williamsville, Canisius, Bishop Timon and St. Francis of Athol Springs this winter. They will play anywhere from 18 to 24 games.
Catanzaro also is coaching the summer hockey camp programs, one for beginners and one for advanced players.