Two years ago, it was difficult for Kevin Chronley to suddenly leave the Warwick girls’ hockey program.
But what certainly felt like Warwick’s loss at the time became La Salle’s gain and now, even more so, is Lincoln High School’s gain.
And he has the chance to once again do what he loves.
Chronley, the man who was instrumental in starting up Warwick’s program in 2004 and served as head and assistant coach of the team until 2010, was a volunteer assistant for the Rams during last year’s hockey season.
This year, after four-year La Salle head coach Dick Ernst moved on to lead a first-year program at Lincoln, Chronley made the move along with him as Ernst’s top assistant.
Just like he was in Warwick, Chronley is one of the centerpieces in fostering the growth of a group of girls who, for the most part, have never stepped foot on an ice rink before.
It’s a position he’s happy to hold.
“There’s something about starting a new team where you’re doing more than coaching the x’s and o’s,” Chronley said. “Most games are like a chess match, trying to take different pieces and putting them in the right position to be successful. It’s exponentially more challenging, and therefore more fun, to take kids who show up and don’t even have skates and they kind of have this passion and delusion – that I often kid them about – that they want to play.”
When Chronley began the Warwick program in 2004, it took two years to even get it off the ground.
It began with open skates at Thayer Arena, just as a way to gauge interest. When it was clear that the interest was there, there was the issue of raising enough money to make having a girls’ hockey team viable.
“This was a very unique situation,” Chronley said. “It was privately-funded, a 501(c) non-profit, to raise money and file for grants and donations. Through all the grassroots efforts, as well as donated time and effort, we were able to teach a group of 20-plus girls how to play hockey so we could compete in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.”
Eventually, with Chronley – whose daughter Brittany was on the team in its early years – having a big hand in every aspect of getting there, the team began play in 2006.
Because he was not a teacher in the Warwick School System, he started the inaugural season as the team’s head coach with the knowledge – and willingness – that he would have to step aside if there was a teacher who wanted to take the reins.
That happened in the second year of the program, when Julie Peters became the head coach. Chronley stayed on as an assistant, and he filled in as the head coach whenever Peters wasn’t available.
In 2010, when current Warwick coach Dave Tibbetts took over the program, Chronley wasn’t kept on as an assistant.
“The unintended consequence to the positive story of Warwick girls’ hockey was that it was a heart-wrenching situation for me personally,” Chronley said.
Another consequence, though, and a good one, was that Ernst, a long-time friend of Chronley’s and a legendary coach around Rhode Island, called almost immediately.
“I picked him up right away,” Ernst said. “It was a great move by me to do that. He’s a terrific hockey man.”
That led to a one-year partnership at La Salle, where the team put together an 11-5 regular season before falling in the quarterfinals to an upstart North Smithfield team.
And while it was a good experience, it was a complete 180-degree turn from what Chronley had gone through in Warwick.
“At La Salle you have an in-place infrastructure,” he said. “The fundraising is gone; the organizing for the banquet, the bus schedules, the whole administration side – it goes away. They have a robust system in place. It’s night and day.”
Following the season, Ernst – who is second all-time in Rhode Island high school hockey history with 629 wins, trailing only Mount St. Charles’ Bill Belisle – was presented with the opportunity to become the first head coach of Lincoln’s team.
He signed on, and Chronley was a perfect guy to bring along for the ride.
“We’re in this new adventure together, and it’s going quite well,” Ernst said. “Kevin comes into the picture and he’s excellent at training beginners. Much of the practice, he spends the time developing them.
“It’s a great situation for me, and it’s a great situation for him.”
And it was the type of situation that Chronley missed during his one year at La Salle.
“I think so much of American sports has been focused on victory, the measuring stick is the scoreboard, there’s winners and losers measured by the start and the end of the game,” Chronley said. “When you have a team that is coming out to learn to play, they really capture the essence of what I believe is sports. The essence of learning how to succeed by tasting bitter defeat and failure, but getting past it.”
Lincoln is currently 1-7 on the season, with its lone win coming over Smithfield 12-6 in its second game of the season.
But the record doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.
“It’s hard to articulate (how much they’ve improved) because people just think you have on rose-colored glasses,” Chronley said. “It’s so much fun to see the kids get better. It’s subtle to see the kids get better when they’re already good. Our team at Warwick, and this team at Lincoln are getting phenomenally better, and they just love being there.”
If the trend from the Warwick team is any indication, then the future is bright at Lincoln.
Warwick, which had never won more than six games in any of its first five seasons, has six wins already this year with six games still remaining.
Throw in the fact that Ernst is now coaching his fifth high school hockey team, and he’s won titles with the previous four, and it’s clear that everything is on the upswing.
But the joy and pride that comes with simply building the program, that – more than anything – is what Chronley loves most.
He’ll enjoy a homecoming of sorts this Saturday, when Warwick and Lincoln play each other at Thayer Arena at 9 p.m.
“My first year at Warwick, there were 22 girls at the time,” Chronley said. “They wanted to be there. They couldn’t wait to be there. That was what made it fun. It was in the summer time, and I can’t tell you how many times I had to get off the beach to go up to an ice rink. Everyone else did too, because they wanted to be there. We all wanted to be there.”