The kids can hardly contain their excitement watching the Zamboni make its final lap around the ice. Gathered in bunches along the benches of Gordon Rink, the only thing separating their skates from zooming across the freshly groomed ice are the boards and eight St. Paul’s School Hockey players pleading with them to wait for just a second longer. The children agree, begrudgingly, but remain fixated on the Zamboni. Finally, the door opens for the machine to make its way off the ice – a countdown ensues. Not five seconds after the door has closed, and the okay has been given, 17 junior skaters flood the ice with excitement and enthusiasm that can no longer be contained. The scene is chaotic, but that’s precisely what Mark Bozek ’98 and his SPS student-coaches want to see.
“Just being out there with them,” says Sixth Former Tyler Green, “it’s contagious.” Green is one of four members of the St. Paul’s School boys varsity hockey team who signed up to coach and mentor youth hockey players as part of the Junior Pelicans program. “Everyone who grew up playing hockey remembers when you just played for the fun of it,” he says. “Being around the kids takes you back.”
Formmate Brett Stoddard agrees. “By far the most rewarding part is seeing their huge smiles after we’ve congratulated them. I remember being that young and being so timid to get out on the ice and this allows me to help those young kids feel passionate and joyful about hockey.”
Mark Bozek, a math teacher and longtime hockey coach at the School, mapped out the idea earlier this winter aboard the team bus during a long road trip. Head Coach Dan Murphy had done something similar at a previous school, and Bozek believed the format would be an excellent fit for SPS and the Concord community. After working with the Athletic Department and the Community Outreach Office, Bozek approached families in Concord he knew from participating in youth hockey with his son and the response was excellent. In total, Bozek brought together 14 kids from Concord and three kids who live on the grounds at St. Paul’s. Now he just needed students to get involved.
“I sent e-mails to both the boys and girls teams looking for eight volunteers,” says Bozek. “I got 23 responses.” Ultimately, he had to give preference to the Sixth Formers who had volunteered. Green was joined by teammates Riley Drew, Julien Ménès, and Eric Sinson and girls players Tiffany Hill, Gaby Roy, Brett Stoddard, and Natalie Tulchinsky.
"I'm from New York so I don't know the Concord community all that well," says Tulchinsky. "This is an opportunity for us as SPS students to be involved with the community that we live in."
Being coaches for the Junior Pelicans involves an additional commitment outside of their already full academic and athletic schedules, but Bozek says none of the players seem to mind. Each Sunday night, he meets with the eight students and goes over the practice plan for the next week. Each station works on a basic skill like skating, passing, or shooting, and is run by two of the students. They are responsible for implementation and making any adjustments necessary on the fly.
“We stress to them that they have to be very deliberate with the kids,” says Bozek. “Get down on their level and don’t explain – show. When drills don’t go the way they expect we reflect, and figure out what we can do differently.”
“Sometimes in stations, little things like a puck coming by can cause chaos,” says Green. “Once they see it flying by they all want to chase it, and we have to corral them.” He adds with a smile, “it gives me an appreciation for all of my coaches.”
“Getting them to listen can be one of the biggest challenges,” says Stoddard. “They are young kids who just want to go out and play.” But Stoddard also notices that the kids are quickly learning not just the skills, but also the camaraderie needed in hockey. “My absolute favorite memory so far was watching one of the scrimmages from the sideline. When the red team scored, out of nowhere comes little Mikey Bozek [son of Mark] going crazy and cheering for his teammate. It was amazing to see him so engaged and so happy for his teammate at an age when a lot of kids aren’t focused on the team.”
The Junior Pelicans have been meeting each Thursday night throughout January and February for eight sessions in total. Though much of the time the kids are mixed for stations, Bozek split them into two teams – red and white. On the final Thursday – February 21 – the two teams culminated their experience with a full scrimmage in front of 75 SPS students who came to cheer them on. Student broadcaster Ryan Murphy also provided play-by-play announcing.
“It has been very satisfying to see this all come together,” says Bozek, who mentions he’d love to continue with this same group for a few years to watch the young players grow. He’s also excited to see a new group of SPS hockey players take up the coaching positions. “Our students might be getting even more from this than the kids. I can see them starting to take ownership and getting outside of their comfort zones.”
Green agrees and believes that the experience has even helped him as a player. “At the end of the day it’s just a game,” he says. “This has helped me get back to that mindset.”