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Online comments put youth hockey coach in hot water

Last October, a parent wrote on Peter Preteroti’s Facebook page that she was heading to Holiday Twin Rinks, but stopping to pick up a caffeinated beverage.

“Because if I don’t I will want to kill someone,” she wrote.

Preteroti, the president of the Buffalo Stars youth hockey league that practices at the rink, replied: “The rink is filled with little regals....good place to start...LOL.”

But the board of directors of the Buffalo Regals, another youth league that shares the same Cheektowaga rink, wasn’t laughing.

Board members say Preteroti has repeatedly made threatening comments on social media, and they contend he brings cases of liquor into the rink while hosting drinking parties in his office for Stars adults.

For those reasons, the Regals believe Preteroti is unfit to serve as a youth hockey coach. Their complaints have gotten the attention of local prosecutors and police, who investigated but declined to bring charges. That hasn’t deterred the adults running the other hockey league.

“He doesn’t belong around kids anymore,” Michael V. Answeeny, the Regals’ longtime president, told The Buffalo News.

To Preteroti and his supporters, the Facebook comment was a badly worded joke, taken out of context, and Preteroti denies getting drunk around children at the rink.

“It was just silly nonsense,” Preteroti said of his online post. “It had nothing to do with the Regals.”

But the “little regals” remark was one of dozens of posts Preteroti made on his publicly accessible Facebook page over a period of at least 18 months, from early 2011 to late 2012.

Many were riddled with expletives, frequent threats of violence and also a few references to depression and suicide.

Adult leaders of the Regals say they had an obligation to report their concerns about Preteroti’s posts on social media – and what they consider his excessive drinking – because they believe he is a potential threat to others.

In response to the Regals’ complaints, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office and the Cheektowaga police looked into Preteroti’s Facebook posts last fall but determined he didn’t commit a crime.

And a representative of the New York State Amateur Hockey Association, extracted from Preteroti a promise to rein in his online commentary.

Police, state hockey officials and the rink’s owners say they haven’t received any formal complaints about Preteroti since last year.

But Regals officials are concerned that he remains a fixture at Holiday Twin Rinks.

“What if something were to happen, God forbid, and we did nothing?” said Terry Miller, the vice president of the Regals.

About 200 young people participate in Preteroti’s Stars league, formerly known as the Hornets, which serves skaters from ages five to 19 who play on travel teams.

Preteroti has a good reputation in the sport, said Mark Grundtisch, general manager of Holiday Twin Rinks. Preteroti, who has been involved in the sport for four decades, was elected in 1994 to a term on USA Hockey’s board of directors.

“He’s been a longtime supporter of youth hockey. He does a lot of good things for youth hockey,” Grundtisch said.

The Regals, with 900 skaters between ages three and 18, offer house and travel teams, from beginner to top-tier AAA.

The Stars and Regals have coexisted for about 25 years, said Answeeny, the Regals’ president, but the relationship frayed after some Stars members first alerted the Regals to Preteroti’s online comments about two years ago.

The Regals president printed out page after page of the posts, which included threats to beat up unnamed people who annoyed Preteroti, jibes at Canadians and references to Preteroti shooting himself or others.

“End of an era as the Canadians just called and said they cannot participate in the Annual Friendship Series this year. 38 Years. I am pretty pissed...waiting this long to tell us,” Preteroti wrote in an undated post. He added: “All Canadian scums can die.”

The Regals also say they’ve seen Preteroti drunk at the rink.

In his defense, Preteroti said the Facebook posts were jokes meant only for friends, but he now recognizes they could be misinterpreted. He said he took down the offending comments and boosted the privacy settings on his account.

Preteroti also denied drinking to excess at Holiday. He and coach Christopher MacKrell say the Stars, during tournaments, set up hospitality rooms, where coaches and scouts gather after games. But they said this is standard for youth hockey.

“Peter runs one of the most family-friendly organizations,” said MacKrell, an attorney who handles the Stars’ legal matters.

In early 2011, the Regals complained to the rink’s owners about the anti-Canadian posts. Early in 2012, they complained about the suicidal posts.

Last November, after reading the “little regals” post, Answeeny and his board cast a wider net, sending letters to the state association and USA Hockey. The Regals board members who signed the letter to the state association include former Sabres star Michael Peca.

And the league got in touch with the district attorney’s office, with an assist from Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, whose son plays on a Regals elite-level travel team.

District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said the posts didn’t amount to criminal behavior. However, he was concerned enough to ask Cheektowaga police to look into the situation.

Cheektowaga Police Lt. Kenneth Rusin said he didn’t find a reason to arrest Preteroti, but he did see enough in the posts to concern him. Rusin declined to comment further, but Preteroti said he was interviewed by police for five hours and later sent to Erie County Medical Center for a mental health evaluation.

Grundtisch, the rink manager, agreed Preteroti made “dumb statements” but he accepted Preteroti’s explanation that the comments never were meant to be made public. Grundtisch also said he reminded Preteroti that no outside liquor can be brought into the rink, which sells beer and wine.

Joseph Baudo, president of the state association, said he warned Preteroti in writing that his online comments violate USA Hockey’s SafeSport social media policies. Baudo said Preteroti replied with a contrite email, and he hasn’t received any complaints about Preteroti since last year.

But the Regals remain concerned, and so does Steve Hoffman, a 23-year youth hockey coach and the mayor of Depew, who said the Stars are barred from the village’s ice rink.

“The liability that comes with his conduct is unacceptable to the Village of Depew, so we pulled his ice time,” Hoffman said.

Regals officials say they can’t understand why Preteroti still is allowed to run a hockey league, and they insist their public airing of these concerns isn’t driven by any rivalry.

But Preteroti feels harassed, and he believes the Regals want his ice time.

“They want me out of the building,” he said.