Story last updated at 2:34 p.m. Thursday, December 5, 2002

Out in the street - Homer High School hockey continues its homeless existence
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: sports

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Ivan Bucher works on stick-handling techniques in the Homer High gym during a recent hockey practice. A lack of an ice facility in Homer has forced the team members to practice indoors, without skates, for much of their first four years of existence.  
The news media has long been the champion of the homeless and the people of the street. Many a story or series on the plight of those less fortunate has earned reporters and editors awards for service to their communities.

This reporter presents the following story (awards are welcome, thank you very much) with an eye toward illuminating the plight of some teenage athletes who doubtlessly eye their opponents with envy, wishing for what everyone else takes for granted -- a home.

Meet the Homer High School hockey team, now in its fourth year of existence, and without a single home game under its collective garter belt.

Because Homer is without ice.

But despite its impoverished, rinkless history, the Mariner hockey team continues to survive, barely.

The Mariners began the current season with 14 players on the roster, which amounts to three offensive lines, two defensive pairings and a single goaltender.


  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News Members of the hockey team train indoors.  
"These seniors that came out are pretty much just playing to keep the program alive for the younger guys," first-year Homer coach Keith Nelson said during a recent practice at the Homer High School gymnasium.

Over the past three seasons, the team has also had far fewer on-ice practices than it has had league games. As a result, the team's conditioning, puck skills and all-around hockey I.Q. has lagged.

During the course of a typical season, some practices are scheduled up on Soldotna or Kenai ice, a 90-minute drive north. But budgetary concerns and obvious time constraints mean the Mariners typically log more time practicing "street" hockey in the school gym than they do practicing the real thing.

Here's an image you're unlikely to see at any other high school hockey practices -- a wing streaks in on the left side and whistles a shot into the net on the near side, and as he peels off of his rush he leaps up and touches the net -- of a basketball hoop. Then he pauses to tighten the laces on his sneakers.

"If there were high school street hockey, we'd be state champs," Nelson said.

Does playing hockey in gym shoes with a rubber ball for a puck heighten stick-handling skills once the game moves to the fast-paced ice?

Homer center Giuseppe Ricciardi shrugged.

"We don't have many options."

Once the cold weather settles in, some practices can be held at the unrefrigerated outdoor rink behind Homer Middle School or on a local pond, though increasingly warm winters have made outdoor ice unreliable at best.

In past seasons, games often end 8-, 9- or 10-1 against the Mariners. Opponents' shots-on-goal stats have tended to look more like an NBA team's field-goal attempts or, worse, point total.

Homer goalies have been routinely named to the All-Region III team because they took more bruises than their peers. Last season, for example, Mariner all-region goalie Garrett Myers faced 79 shots during a 14-0 loss to Colony last season.

Nonetheless, the 2001-2002 hockey season ended on an up note, despite a 2-17-1 record. Last March, after years of trying to procure a site for a covered or fully indoor ice rink, the Homer Hockey Association finally made a deal for a piece of land -- 4 acres off Lake Street that the group would eventually purchase from Homer Electric Association.

It looked like all the pieces were finally in place. The refrigeration and the boards were all in hand. Organizers began to scout for a used Zamboni. A grant proposal was sent off to the Rasmuson Foundation. Plans for a multi-use facility were drawn up.

As the summer began to take hold, players had visions of next season's home games complete with crowds of boisterous, cheering fellow students in attendance. Coaches had visions of Homer hockey tournaments drawing teams from across Southcentral to play in a new facility on the shores of beautiful, glacier-adorned Kachemak Bay.

Then, in July, the roof caved in on those dreams.

Because of concerns over safety and aesthetics with the recycled steel building the group planned to erect at the Lake Street site, the Homer Planning Advisory Commission sent the Homer Hockey Association back to the drawing board.

It was a tough hit to absorb.

"I was hoping we were going to have a rink this year so I could skate on home ice my last year here," said Ricciardi, a team co-captain.

As the reality of a true home schedule in 2002-2003 crumbled, key links in the backbone of the Mariner team quit.

Last year's coach, Brett Haus, announced that he would not return because his son, Levi Goldsby, one of the Mariners' top scorers, had elected to transfer to Kenai.

Myers, the Homer goalie who showed no quit despite regularly being pummeled with shots, also headed up the road to play his senior year in Kenai.

"The 14 players we have is the minimum to have a team," said Mariner left wing and co-captain Ivan Bucher. "It's hard to keep guys interested when year after year there's nowhere to skate.

"It's like swimming without a pool."

Homer athletic director Chris Perk, along with the Mariner players, decided one way to spark a keener interest would be to play a softer schedule. So this season Homer is playing at the junior varsity level, with the exception of a few select varsity games.

"They were real nervous about not having (an experienced) goalie going up against varsity competition," Perk said, adding that with the number of shots Myers routinely faced last season, players had reason to be nervous.

So far, the concept of reversing the Mariners' on-ice fortunes has succeeded where it was supposed to. But winger Scott Owen said that while it's nice to chalk up some big lopsided wins, they seem a little hollow coming against junior varsity competition. The sophomore said he thought that the Mariners might get better playing -- and losing to -- tougher opponents.

Next year they'll get their chance again.

"Next year we'll have a good group of seniors who will hopefully be ready to step the program back up to the varsity level," Perk said.

It is the dream of this year's players, and the rest of Homer's hockey faithful, that next year the Mariners will be able to hang up the street hockey sneakers -- that next year hockey will have a home on Kachemak Bay.

To quote an annual saying of National League baseball fans in Chicago -- wait until next year.

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer