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North Tonawanda hockey needs the green to keep dream growing; Second year has some highlights; challenge is money

North Tonawanda's hockey team won only two games this season. Year two at the varsity level was full of disappointment, littered with frustration.

But those fleeting moments of joy -- like one wild 9-7 win over Niagara Falls -- are the moments that make it all worth it.

"There were definitely a few games where we got our butts kicked," North Tonawanda coach Jeff Swan said. "But you win a couple games, and it turns things around. They're resilient kids."

So this off-season, the Lumberjacks will keep clawing for every penny.

Not including equipment, it costs approximately $30,000 for the team to have a season. That means the countdown is on. Again. Saturday, the team held a basket raffle, and more events are on the way. Like many other hockey teams in the region, North Tonawanda fights for survival. There will be a team, Swan says, but of course concern lingers.

Since NT jumped up from the club level to varsity two years ago, some hockey players haven't gone out for the team because of the cost.

"We've raised the money for two years so somehow, someway we'll come up with the money," Swan said. "But anything we can do in terms of fundraisers to bring the individual price down for every parent just makes it easier."

There are costs for transportation, coaching payroll, league fees, referee fees, etc. But the biggest challenge is funding ice time. Unlike football, soccer, basketball or other sports, North Tonawanda cannot simply play free at its own campus. Instead, the Lumberjacks must pay to practice. Of the $30,000, Swan estimates half of that is allotted to practice. Ice time can range from $170 to $210 per hour. Allen Iverson didn't know how easy he had it.

Swan would prefer to practice four times per week, but NT could only max out at three this season. The good news is that the school district's new athletics director, Cynthia Bullis, is a major ally. The hockey team has more access to the weight room and basketball gyms -- definitely a boost.

During its first season, NT had minimal contact with the high school. That has changed with Bullis.

"She was at every game, talking to the players," Swan said. "The kids really liked the fact that the school cared about the program."

So even if New York State budget cuts continue, and concern heightens, there's hope that the team has support where it matters most. This year, North Tonawanda covered the $5,000 participation fee, coaching salaries and half of the team's transportation costs. Bullis hopes to add to this every year. She knows the alternative isn't pretty.

"Some schools are getting rid of hockey because it's such a huge expense," said Bullis, without disclosing the teams. "A lot are on the bubble."

Bullis said the Board of Education looks at things to cut on a weekly basis. Hockey could be something she fights for.

"I'm concerned for everything right now," she said, "but I'm hoping we can keep it."

Events like Saturday's basket raffle help. Countless items were raffled off, including signed Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford jerseys, a signed Ryan Miller goalie stick, signed Danny Gare and Tim Connolly hockey sticks, Buffalo Sabres tickets, Buffalo Bandits tickets and Reebok-donated sneakers signed by Maurice Jones-Drew and Brandon Marshall.

Booster club member Jennifer Toye, who headed Saturday's fundraiser, is optimistic.

"These boys work hard on the ice and off the ice," Toye said. "They're all really good kids. We want to help support them and make this a successful organization so there's no chance of hockey disappearing out of the school district. This is Western New York. This is a hockey area."

The overlying hope is to remain a varsity team.

Before North Tonawanda moved from club to varsity, Swan heard the grumblings in the community. He heard, "Well, that's not really a team sport." Now? He's stopped all the time in town by people. Suddenly, everyone's interested.

The Jacks' leap to the varsity level provided instant legitimacy, and Swan wants to keep it that way. More than half of his team is composed of sophomores. And right now, they want to keep getting recognized where it matters most -- within their own hallways.

"For a lot of hockey players, it's a year-round sport," Swan said. "If they're not playing varsity hockey, they're probably not going to get that letter. They're not going to be playing another sport. Hockey is really a year-round thing for these kids. It's their chance to play for their school, and what kid doesn't want to do that?"

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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