In the 2002-03 season, the Warwick Vets hockey team went 7-10-1 in the Championship Division, which was the state’s highest division and became what is now Division I.
Five years later, the ’Canes went 16-0 in Division III, and they followed that up with an 11-6-1 record the next year.
Vets also has two state championships to its credit – the first in 1987, when it won the Met B-1 Small title, and the second in 1993, when it was the Met C Champion.
In short, Vets has a history of success on the ice.
But the last two years have yielded just four total wins, and a lack of bodies, more than anything, has been to blame. By the time last season ended, Vets was down to just seven skaters.
Because of that, rumors have swirled around Warwick for the last few months that Vets wouldn’t be able to put a team on the ice this season.
According to principal Gerry Habershaw, though, those rumors can be put to bed – the ’Canes will have a team, and they’ll be skating just like everybody else when practices get underway this week. Teams around the state are eligible to start today.
It took a heavy in-school recruiting effort to get it done, but Habershaw and head coach Howie Rosenblatt now expect about 16 students to come out for the team.
And even though that isn’t a huge number compared to many of the schools Vets will be competing against, it’s a stark contrast to what could have been if a few of the students had turned their heads rather then committing to play.
“I am surprised,” Habershaw said. “There’s a lot of kids who want to keep the program alive.”
The ’Canes return just five players from last year’s 2-14 team, and the reality of that sunk in during the offseason. It became apparent to Habershaw, Rosenblatt and athletic director Ken Rix that, unless something was done, they could not form a team.
There was some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a group of freshmen to-be in the school’s district, but the bulk of that group elected to go to Hendricken rather then come to Vets.
“We talked it over to (director of secondary education of Warwick schools) Bill Sangster and my athletic direction Ken Rix and we said, ‘Listen, we could have an issue next year because we don’t have many kids coming back, and the five or six freshmen that could help the program are going to Hendricken,’” Habershaw said. “So we thought we could be in trouble.”
That realization spawned the recruiting effort.
“We decided that we would plan on trying to have a hockey team,” Habershaw said. “We had sign-ups in September to see if we would have enough kids. We wanted to do it early.”
The steady push from Habershaw, Rosenblatt and Rix started to get through. They weren’t looking for a specific type of player, just players in general who could help keep the program from dying.
Before they knew it, positive returns starting rolling in.
“There was a lot of talk and information about trying to get players interested in playing hockey,” Rosenblatt said. “I think that’s where we got eight or nine kids who just wanted to play.”
The news got even better when one of the students who was originally going to attend Hendricken decided to stay in the school district and attend Vets. Another player, David Hersey, transferred in from Hendricken.
It was a perfect storm of events, but one that couldn’t have happened without the school taking the initiative before the numbers problem became a crushing reality.
“I said, ‘We need you,’” Habershaw said. “We can’t afford to have decent hockey players not play. I said, ‘You need to be out there, representing our school and having fun play hockey.’”
Now, assuming the majority of the kids who start practicing end up staying with the team, Vets can breathe easy for this year.
However, it’s not entirely out of the woods yet.
It may face the same problem for the coming years if players continue to leave the district. Rosenblatt has heard that there are a few kids in the district who would be big-time additions to the program if they stayed next year, but there’s no telling exactly how it will play out.
In the meantime, the ’Canes are just doing the best they can with what they have.
“I’ve got a great coach in Howie Rosenblatt,” Habershaw said. “He does a great job. We can’t afford to keep losing kids to the private schools. But we are going to have hockey this year, and I’m happy about that.”
It’s a start, but the challenge going forward is to make sure that hockey will continue as part of Vets’ future, and not just a successful part of its past.
“As long as there are kids in the system that want to play hockey, then we’re going to have a team,” Rosenblatt said. “And as long as they want me to be the coach, I’ll coach.”