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Shutdown puts youth hockey club 'in a real bind'

Robert Zanolla skates for the Brooklyn-based Aviators Hockey

Robert Zanolla skates for the Brooklyn-based Aviators Hockey Club during a practice at Iceworks in Syosset because their home rink at Floyd Bennett Field is closed due to the government shutdown. Floyd Bennett field is located in Brooklyn and part of the National Park Service. (Oct. 10, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Robert Zannola pondered a hard civics lesson as his teammates circled a zone marked for them at the Syosset ice rink.

Two weeks into the government shutdown, Robert, 11, and his junior hockey team have been added to the list of casualties. Their Brooklyn-based Aviator Hockey Club has been displaced from its home at Floyd Bennett Field because the national parks site is closed.

The traveling club, with 150 members ages 5 to 17, has found refuge at Iceworks in Syosset -- sharing half the rink where the Islanders practice -- and other rinks in Port Washington and Long Beach. But the reasons for the shutdown are difficult for the young players to fathom, parents and organizers say, and they don't know why the government is hurting their sport.

"I feel disappointed," said sixth-grader Robert, of White-stone, who came to the Syosset rink for a 7:30 p.m. practice Wednesday. "The government's just fighting over their salaries."

As Republicans and Democrats spar, the shutdown also has stumped adults attempting to link the closure of the team's regular rink to the shutdown.

"It's not just inconvenient, it's hard to explain to kids what's going on," said Max Gelman, 60, of Rego Park, Queens, who brought his 11-year-old twin grandsons, of Woodmere, to the rink. "They don't understand why a hockey rink is supposed to close because the government is closed."

The last two weeks have meant organizers rushing pell-mell to reschedule games and restore practice time. In the world of competitive youth hockey, that is coveted real estate.

"We're in a real bind," said Chris Werstine, who directs travel hockey for the Aviator Hockey Club. "The longer this continues, the more danger we're going to be in with the season."

Managers acknowledged it had been difficult for the team to find practice space from rivals, until groups such as Pride in Athletics for Life, which plays at Iceworks, stepped up.

"Everybody on Long Island and the metro area has their own travel teams," said Ann Marie Smith, a general manager for the 10- and 11-year-olds practicing Wednesday night. "It's hard to adjust when you're competing with those teams and asking them to help you out."

Tom Palamara, executive director of Pride in Athletics for Life, an ice hockey league, said he approached the competitors after hearing of their displacement. "Nobody likes to give up full ice practices because there's far and few between," he said. "But we've been on the street before, and it's not a good feeling."

For the competitive players, the shutdown is a buzzkill. Fresh off a summer of intensive boot camps, coaches fear momentum will be lost. Days passed without practice, and home games had to be postponed.

"They're constantly on the ice, 12 months a year," Smith said. "Now you're shifting them around, shutting them down."

What is worse, parents say, is schedules have fluctuated, breaking plans and delaying routines.

For Robert, it means "I can't have as much time to do other stuff in my life."

And Gelman's grandson Andrew, 11, of Woodmere, said he did not return home until about 9 p.m. Wednesday after practice. His grandmother worried about a rescheduled weekend game. It was for the evening.

But not too much.

"It's never a question; hockey comes first," said Anna Gelman, sitting in the heated bleachers. "For parents and for kids."

The unexpected lesson in politics was not lost on Andrew. "In school we're learning about how politics work, and how presidents get elected, about Democrats and Republicans," Andrew said. "We could learn this in class, but you learn it in life."

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