Nine-year-old Brody Berard's tearful goodbye to his Woonsocket North Stars teammates embodies everything we love about hockey, but it's also a reminder how professionalism is eroding the minor hockey experience.
Before you read this, check out the video that accompanies this piece and try to get through it without welling up just a little bit. We dare you. Double-dog dare you, in fact. It’s raw, unfiltered and authentic and it features a young boy in his hockey equipment, giving his team a speech after their last game of the season where he breaks down and displays all the vulnerability and emotion that embodies everything we love about kids and about this wonderful game.
But if you dig a little, the story goes so much deeper than that. First of all, the kid in the video is a nine-year-old by the name of Brody Berard and he plays for the Woonsocket North Stars Mite team in Rhode Island. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Brody is former NHLer Bryan Berard’s nephew. Berard’s brother, Bruce, coaches the team and is Brody’s father.
But it’s also a story that touches on the cultural fabric of minor hockey and how the professionalism of play is in some ways eroding the experience. You see, one of the reasons why Brody Berard is so emotional after this game is that the Woonsocket North Stars, a small minor hockey association run by volunteers, will not exist when the puck drops for the 2017-18 season. It was recently bought up by a group called the Providence Hockey Club, a for-profit business that plans to fold the North Stars into its empire. The North Stars were established in 1979 and since then have produced the likes of Berard, Brian Lawton, Brian Boucher, Keith Carney, Jeff Jillson and Garth Snow, but it could no longer keep up with a rival that pays its staff and has a bigger budget.
“Between getting dads to volunteer and having a board, it’s hard for a non-profit,” Berard said. “The Providence Hockey Club is a privately owned business. The owners pay their staff and run it as a business, compared to the Woonsocket North Stars who were always run by a bunch of dads who played pond hockey together.”
But back to Brody and the kids. The North Stars qualified for the playoffs by finishing eighth in the Eastern Hockey Federation and during the qualifying round, had tied and lost a game. They went into their game Sunday against the fourth-place Providence Capitals needing to win by seven goals to advance. They won the game 5-4, which put an end to their season.
Bruce said he caught a glimpse of Brody in the backseat on the way to the game and his son told him he was going to give a speech to the team. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ” Bruce said. “He said, ‘You know, I’m going to miss these guys next year. It’s been a fun year and I love them.’ And I said, ‘Do me a favor. Do it after the game,’ because I know he’s an emotional kid. I said, ‘Let’s go out there and beat these guys and after we beat them you can say whatever you want.’ I’m glad I pulled my phone out because I almost didn’t. After the game he kind of winked at me like, ‘It’s game on.’ ”
What makes it so wonderful is its authenticity. Throughout the speech, there’s a little kid next to him who isn’t sure whether he should start digging into a lollipop. After the speech, one of his teammates comes to give him a hug before, on the prompting of Bruce, the entire team gathers around him. “That’s what it’s all about, boys,” Bruce says in the background.
The players in the North Stars will disperse and go their own way with the Providence Hockey Club, but somehow things will not be the same as they were in their little corner of the world. As for Brody, he has been chosen to play next season with the Providence Hockey Club’s elite team playing in the highest level of hockey in that area. Some of his teammates who are playing a tier lower will join him. Many will not.
“It’s a die-hard little hockey town,” Bruce said of Woonsocket. “It’s kind of sad that it’s being broken apart right now and gobbled up by a bigger organization. Everything has changed in youth hockey and all youth sports, but I guess you have to adapt.”
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