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No NHL, no problem: Hockey Night in Cleveland

Justin Sill (left) and goalie Eric Ulchecker are members of the Cleveland Sharks.

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Justin Sill (left) and goalie Eric Ulchecker are members of the Cleveland Sharks.

Oct. 10 – Cleveland Skating Club; Shaker Heights, Ohio
Cleveland Skating Club 3, Cleveland Sharks 1
Cleveland Skating Club – Jimmy Warren (2), Henry Frontini
Cleveland Sharks – Cameron Landis


SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio –
Hockey Night in Suburban Cleveland is not to be confused with Curling Night in Suburban Cleveland. At the Cleveland Skating Club, they play hockey on a rink that also houses five curling sheets – picture lots and lots of faceoff dots – in an arena that once served as an armory for troops and horses during the Spanish-American War.

On this night, the Cleveland Skating Club Bantams are playing the Cleveland Sharks ’98s. The hockey is surprisingly fast. In fact, the last 10 minutes of the first period goes without a single whistle. Mia Glassco of the Cleveland Skating Club, a 14-year-old girl who only started playing goal last season, stops 26 of 27 shots, losing her bid for a shutout when the Sharks score with less than three minutes to go.

There is an elite hockey presence in Cleveland with AAA organizations such as the Cleveland Barons, which are based out of nearby Parma, and the Cleveland Hockey Alliance. The level in tonight’s game is a step lower at AA. Some of the players aspire to move onto a AAA organization. Most of them, however, hope to continue their careers as high school hockey players.

But not Sharks forwards Justin Sill and goaltender Eric Ulchecker. Just back from the Hockey Time Tournament in Detroit, in which the Sharks took the championship in the final over Redford, Mich., the two players were recruited to try out for a AAA spring hockey team.

“I definitely want to go as far as I can in hockey,” Ulchecker said. “That’s why I play my heart out every single game.”

According to Sharks coach Adam Rich, one of the things that keeps a lot of players from moving up to a higher level is cost. To play for the Sharks, players pay about $1,300 a year, compared to about $3,500 to play AAA hockey. The teams in the league draw from Cleveland and its many suburbs with some players coming from more than an hour away.

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“The whole idea here is to get the kids ready for high school,” Rich said. “We try to give them high-level games and a lot of high-level skills hockey and we focus a lot on fundamental skills and positioning. But what we’re trying to do most is bring out that passion for the game.”

As the NHL continues to lock out its players with no end in sight to the dispute, there are much worse places to be than at a Bantam AA game in suburban Cleveland. The play is relatively clean, there is a big emphasis on skills and skating and while there are the requisite on-ice mistakes that teenagers are bound to make, there’s also a healthy amount of discipline.

A lot of the players play other sports, but the Sharks do require a high level of commitment from theirs. By early October, the team had already played 20 games together. The spring and summer were spent working on skills and skating and team bonding, something that has worked out well for the Sharks. Their loss to the Cleveland Skating Club was their first since early August.

“What I think we learned was when you don’t hustle, what happens?” Rich said. “But all in all, we’ve been playing very good hockey.”

Most of all, they’re playing hockey. Anyone who says there’s no hockey during the lockout is wrong. It’s being played all over the world by hundreds of thousands of kids, from the suburbs of Cleveland to the Canadian prairies. And not having the NHL gives us a chance to see some of that game played at its most pure level for a couple of months.

Ken Campbell will travel to take in different hockey games all season to find unique stories.

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