For kids in Plainsboro and West Windsor who have wanted to play organized team ice hockey, there have always been options like the Lawrenceville Flames or the Princeton Tiger Lilies for girls. But the West Windsor and Plainsboro community has not had a town ice hockey program of its own — until this fall, when the flyers went home with the kids through the schools announcing the establishment of a new West Windsor-Plainsboro team.##M:[more]##

The new West Windsor-Plainsboro team is called the West Windsor Whalers (Plainsboro apparently got left out of the name because of the alliteration). The team is part of the Central Jersey Town Hockey League and is based at the Princeton Sports Center in Monmouth Junction.

Among those who jumped right into the program, skates first, so to speak, was Neil Havkin, a six-year-old first grader at Maurice Hawk, who lives in the Penns Neck neighborhood of West Windsor. Though he has been skating for two years, his mother Nancy explains that this is his first year playing organized hockey games. “To have our own town team and be able to play for it is more motivating for him and he’s looking forward to the idea of playing with his friends from his own neighborhood.”

She is also impressed with the caliber of the coaching she has seen so far. “I think it’s a fabulous program for kids. They get a lot of close attention from professionals who are very good at what they do and also very good with the kids. They have a great attitude.”

Kathy Modi, another West Windsor resident, says her son Nishant, a seven-year-old second grader at Maurice Hawk, snapped awake at 5:30 a.m. the other day wanting to know if it was time to get ready for hockey. (Practices are Saturdays, and games are Sundays — often starting at 7:30 a.m., so this is a sport that favors early birds.) “He absolutely loves it,” Modi says. “He’s getting so much out of the program. The coaches are very patient and well-organized. They give a lot of focused, hands-on training.”

“Given our location in Monmouth Junction it was a matter of reaching out to West-Windsor and Plainsboro to let them know we were setting up this league and filling a gap that’s been there,” says Dave Scowby, a co-owner of the Princeton Sports Center, who captained the Princeton University ice hockey team and is a director of coaching and Bantam head coach for the New Jersey Kings in youth hockey.

“The community offers us a strong demographic with lots of children at the age where they can really benefit from the growth and development offered by a great hockey program. We saw a need to help grow the sport and this area was ready for it.”

Scowby says that starting early is especially important with a sport like hockey. “Developing a hockey player doesn’t happen overnight. By the time they get to high school, it’s really hard to ask a first-timer to trade in his soccer cleats for hockey skates. Hockey is a sport of discipline and great athleticism. Not everybody can stand on a pair with skates with blades an eighth-of-an-inch thick and skate 30 miles an hour.”

Ted Annis, another Princeton Sports Center co-owner, New Jersey Kings coach, and Princeton University hockey alumnus, echoes that thought. “Hockey is not yet a marquee sport in the United States, certainly not like baseball or basketball that you see everywhere. Right now we have 350 kids in our Learn to Play hockey program. We’re exposing a huge group of kids between the ages of 3 and 9 who have never played hockey before. It bodes well for the future of hockey in central New Jersey because these kids coming up will have the skills to bring hockey to a whole new level.”

The potential and desire certainly exist, according to Scowby and Annis, even if New Jersey is not quite up there with places like Minnesota, Canada, and Massachusetts that traditionally have produced strong hockey players and a strong base of fan support. Both men see New Jersey as a place with a huge amount of untapped resources and talent, and they are excited about developing opportunities for children in this state along the lines of NCAA Division 1 hockey programs.

The program at Princeton Sports Center works with USA Hockey, the umbrella organization that guides youth hockey programs in the United States. “We want to use our own background and experience to give students the opportunity to play hockey at a higher level at a younger age,” says Scowby. “We want to prepare them for a competitive high school hockey program and then see them eligible for college programs where they can combine their academics and athletics.”

Traditionally, many parents have been reluctant to have their kids try out for ice hockey because the sport can be so expensive when you factor in the cost of the equipment, instruction, and ice time.

“We looked at all the other sports that a child plays at a young age, basketball, baseball, soccer, all relatively low cost sports compared to hockey. The initial investment and fear of making a commitment that the child won’t stick to has traditionally been a huge barrier for many families wanting to try it out,” says Scowby.

That’s why the Princeton Sports Center has bundled the costs into one flat fee, making the sport more attractive to first-timers. A typical starter set, equipment, skates, all of that can cost from $150 to $250. “To invest that much money before the child even steps on the ice is asking too much of the family. There were too many parents who were saying how do we know if he likes hockey if he’s never had a chance to play? We give them a way to get into the sport at a much lower rate, so they don’t feel like they have to go out on a financial limb.”

The Learn to Skate program costs $110. There’s an additional cost of $30 for membership in USA Hockey. So it costs a family $140 total for entire 13-week introductory program, which covers the costs of the lessons in addition to use of all the equipment necessary: skates, protective body gear, helmet, gloves, and hockey stick. There are four other youth divisions for the more experienced players. Mites are players born in 1997 or after, Squirts are born in 1995 and 1996, PeeWees and Bantam are born between 1992 and 1994. Then there are the high school divisions.

Scowby says he and his coaches are looking to the National Hockey League’s Players Association for help to further grow the sport. “Because of the hiatus the NHL took last year and taking it on the chin from fans, they’re in a position where it’s good public relations to help arenas get involved in the growth and development of the sport for young people.” He and his partners purchased the business from ProSkate, removed it from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, raised capital, improved the facility and renamed it the Princeton Sports Center. They overhauled the entire program and invested money with a special emphasis on developing the youth angle.

Scowby, who is 32 years old, lives in Pennington with his wife Courtney, 28, a graphic designer for Princeton Sports Center. Their only child right now, he laughs, is a nine-month-old Great Dane puppy that spends quite a bit of time at the arena. After graduating from Princeton University in 1995 he joined ALK Technologies, a transportation and technology firm in Princeton, where he worked for nine years before breaking away to “do my own thing, something I absolutely love.”

Like so many hockey players, Scowby honed his skills in Canada. He was born in the small town of Biggar in Saskatchewan. His father was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. His mother was a homemaker and his older sister was a figure skater. Scowby learned how to ice skate only a few months after he learned how to walk. “My mom and dad would take me out at 18 months old to learn how to skate. They’d carry me out to the middle of the ice rink. I would try to crawl out to the sideboards and they’d tell me you have to stand and skate out to the sideboards. I would stand there and cry and cry and cry and finally I would do it and that’s how I learned how to skate. If we weren’t at the rink, we’d be out in the garden skating on the water we had frozen over, or just down in the basement playing hockey.”

Scowby grew up somewhat like a military brat, with his father’s job moving the family from town to town, five or six towns in all, and in each one of them he would skate. He finally ended up playing Midget Triple A level hockey in Regina, Saskatchewan. Not only was he a hockey standout, he was an academic standout as well, and it was from there that his playing and studies caught the eye of Princeton University. He played hockey, captained the team his senior year, and earned a double major in civil engineering and architecture.

The members of the management team at Princeton Sports Center all have a Princeton hockey connection. Like Scowby, Annis grew up in Canada. He started skating in his hometown of Belleville, Ontario, when he was 3. He played on Princeton’s ice hockey team and graduated from the university in 1997. Scowby’s business partner, Janice Benson, also played hockey at Princeton and graduated in 1982. The fourth member of the management team, Jackson Hegland, graduated in 1999 and also played hockey.

“Our goal as an organization is to give a child the experience we had at Princeton by bundling academics and athletics together and we felt that the only way we were able to do this was to acquire our own facility, raise capital, and provide a training ground for those kids who are looking to use hockey to get an education.” Not to mention also having a whole lot of fun.

Princeton Sports Center, 1000 Cornwall Road, Monmouth Junction. 732-940-6800.

(Among the participants in the new program is the writer’s son, William Brossman, 6, who is skating in the Mites division.)

High School Hoops:

Will South’s Grid Success Carry Over?

Bob Schurtz, the new varsity boys’ basketball coach at High School South, is hoping his team can have the same kind of turnaround this year as the school’s football program.

Schurtz, an assistant coach under head coach Todd Smith on the Pirate’s football team, helped to turn around a program that won five games in the two previous years into a conference champion this season.

Although the Pirates missed out on advancing to the NJSIAA Group III Central final by losing to conference rival Nottingham two weeks ago, the Pirates dominated Lawrence in their final game on November 26 to raise their record to 10-1 (10-0 in conference games), the best in school history.

“I believe if we played against Nottingham the way we played Saturday against Lawrence, we’d be practicing football for this weekend,” said Schurtz in an interview while his basketball team worked out in the weight room nearby.

Just as Schurtz’s attentions were divided between two teams, so were some of his players, with about 11 of them playing on the football squad. “Players aren’t allowed to be involved in two sports at the same time, so we got off to an interesting start, because we didn’t have the guys from the football team here until this week.”

Now, with the football season over, Schurtz is hoping he can bring some of the Pirates’ football magic over to his team. Last year, the team finished with a 7-13 overall record and ended the season in last place in the Colonial Division,

“We’re practicing at a rapid pace — a high energy, intense level. It’s the same thing we did with the football team. I’m hoping that what we’re doing in practice can translate into good basketball during games.”

One area Schurtz says must change from last year is the team’s defense — which was ranked last in the conference giving up 70-plus points per game. “That’s unacceptable. We have to do better. Defense is something that you can work on and put a lot of pride in.”

The Pirates begin their season on Friday, December 16, at home against Ewing, at 7 p.m.

No one knows High School North basketball better than Eric Becker. He has been the coach since the school’s inception six years ago. While the team struggled last year, finishing 7-17 overall and 1-11 in the CVC, the returning players worked hard in the off-season and have continued that pace in the first week of practice.

“We have a good core of seniors coming back,” says Becker, citing forward John Byrnes and guards Corey Collins and Conor Hayes, among others. The team will have to find a replacement for last year’s graduating center, Kevin Hennessey. Among the returning big men are Marcus Ruggierio, and Alex Crawford.

North also is likely to count on swing men Brian Smith and Mike DeGoria — the latter suffered a shoulder injury in football but is making progress.

The Northern Knights have four scrimmages scheduled (only one at home — against Northern Burlington on Saturday, December 10 before the opening game against Hopewell Valley on Friday, December 16. “We’re jelling as a unit, which I like to see,” says Becker. “If we play hard, play together, and play smart, we’ll do fine.”

High School Wrap-Up:

Football

High School North, (1-9). A loss to Princeton, 42-0, on November 19. Passing: Zach Weale, 4-9, for 10 yards, 1 interception; Chris Petrone, 1-2, for 1 yard. Rushing: Michael DeGoria, 7-63; Weale, 9-4; Raymon Sanchez, 8-24; Jordan Chirombolo, 3-8; Darren Paret, 5-24.

High School South, (10-1). A loss to Nottingham, 19-10, in the NJSIAA Group III Central semifinals on November 19. Passing: Colin Dampier, 6-21 for 70 yards, 4 interceptions. Rushing: Earl Burgess, 8-14; Ryan Lupo, 21-140, 1 TD; Brian Morris, 1-7; Stuart Adams, 5-13; Dampier, 4-6.

A win over Lawrence, 31-14, on November 26. Passing: Dampier, 6-12, for 162 yards. Rushing: Morris, 8-67; Burgess, 16-104, 1 TD; Lupo, 19-105, 1 TD; Adams, 3-16. Receiving: Morris, 1-19; Steve Odachowski, 1-21; J.B. Fitzgerald, 3-112, 2 TD; Andy McKeever, 1-10.

Cross Country

Three cross county runners from High School South finished in the top 50 in the NJSIAA Meet of Campions on November 19 at Holmdel. Katie Kellner finished 26th, with a time of 19:33. On the boys side, Joe Ennis finished 34th with a time of 16:33. Pirate teammate Brian Leung finished in 39th place with a time of 16:36.