WESTERLY — Growing up as a hockey player in Westerly, Sean Morrone remembers regularly traveling to rinks across the state for games.
Now, Morrone is bringing the sport to the children of Westerly through the first-ever youth hockey league in town. Morrone said the idea of starting the Westerly Youth Hockey League had been tentatively discussed by several community groups for a while before he decided to make it a reality.
“It was just a matter of grabbing the bull by the horns,” Morrone said, explaining that he pitched the idea to the Ocean Community YMCA over the summer. After getting the Y’s support, he reached out to other coaches and players through the local adult hockey club he co-founded two years ago. The youth league hit the ice for its first season about five weeks ago with 45 participants ages 5 to 12. The players are divided into four teams — three are from Westerly and one is from Norwich — with weekly practices and games at the Washington Trust Community Skating Center on Main Street.
The league is designed as an introductory and skills-based program. “It’s designed for all talent levels, even those who have never skated before,” Morrone said. “The most challenging part is trying to teach all the kids and have them all get something out of it across all ages.”
Each team has one lineup of older players, and a second one of younger players. The teams rotate lineups throughout the game, pairing older, more experienced players with each other for one lineup, and then younger players for the next.
The coaches also try different drills for different age groups, according to 14-year-old Sierra Nastasi, who is an assistant coach for one of the Westerly teams with her dad, Larry.
“You have to use different techniques sometimes,” said Nastasi, who is in eighth grade at Westerly Middle School and plays on a boys hockey team through the Southern Rhode Island Youth Hockey Association.
The coaches have noticed that in the six weeks since the program began, all of the participants have made noticeable progress.
“They got a lot better than I expected, to be honest,” Sierra said, explaining that many of the players have developed skills like stopping and shooting even faster than she did when she first learned to play.
Morrone crediting the opening period of practice — which is always designated for skating — as a major factor in improving skills. “Even if they already know how to skate, they’re building endurance and fine-tuning the basic movements. Learning the edges is huge, too.”
Larry Nastasi, who taught hockey lessons at the skating rink before the league was created, said he was amazed to see kids who could barely stand up on skates now skating and playing with ease.
“It’s great to see how we can bring kids of different ages and levels together to create a successful and competitive league,” he said. “And they always have so much fun, which is really the most important.”
Beyond skating technique lessons, Morrone said the practices also include passing and shooting drills. Max Spelman, co-founder of the Westerly Men’s Hockey League, also volunteers at some practices to teach interested players how to be a goalie. Morrone said that the goalie equipment, which can be fairly expensive, was bought with money raised through the hockey club, the YMCA and a parent donor.
Aside from the goalie accessories, players are expected to provide their own equipment, including skates, pads, helmets, gloves and a hockey stick.
The league held its first official games on Jan. 19, and will continue to do so on Sundays through Feb. 23, providing there are no weather-related cancellations, Morrone said.
“It’s been the highlight of my winter,” Sierra said. “I think the players have loved it, too.”
For more information on the league and scheduled games and practices, visit www.leaguelineup.com/wyhl.