The line of high school seniors, flanked by their parents at one end of Rink 1 at Suburban Ice on Saturday night as they celebrated their last home hockey game at the prep level, encapsulate what is special about the Eastside Stars hockey program.
A co-op program drawing from a number of area schools, the roster is an amalgamation of individual players from the East Lansing, Haslett, Owosso, Bath, and Okemos school districts. On senior night, each school had at least one player finishing out their last high school hockey season.
“It’s interesting,” East Lansing senior Blake Burns said of the co-op nature. “It makes it a lot more fun though.”
Eastside, aside from the novelty of being a high school co-op program, is also a bastion of joy for playing hockey — something that can be pushed to the margins at higher levels of hockey like junior leagues. Part of that fun can certainly be attributed to the raucous student section that turns out for home games.
And while the players and coaches assuredly want to win, this will be the highest level of the sport most of the players reach and the pressure to advance to the next level isn’t omnipresent. It’s as much about the opportunity to play, the time spent with teammates and memories made as it is about winning.
So while Jan. 29 was as much about the last home game for the seniors, it was also to celebrate their entire careers to that point, ones made richer by time spent playing with Eastside.
“Honestly, it’s just kinda surreal,” Burns said at practice the week leading up to the game. “I’ve been playing all four years. I’ve been around this forever.”
At practice during the week leading up to senior night game against Mattawan High School, it’s easy to see the fun players have. It’s late in the season and with a senior-laden team, practice gets going before either of the coaches in attendance — Bill Sippola and Stu Lowe — are on the ice. Players stretch, start skating, and then get going with sticks and pucks, running through a quick set of drills.
During this whole time, about 10 minutes, the chatter is endless. Players catch up on their school day or talk some light smack to each other for a missed shot or bad pass, all the while working through drills.
Eventually, Sippola takes charge of practice and the team gets into 5-on-5 scrimmages, with the coach acting as official. With each drop of the puck for a faceoff, teammates turn to adversaries for a brief period as they duel for loose pucks and open ice. These periods are brief, about 90 seconds or two minutes, depending on what happens on the ice. While these bursts of play take place, about half the team is on the bench — they sub in and out with stoppages — joking around and chirping (hockey parlance) their on-ice teammates.
And as the players enjoy it, so do the coaches — though a good sense of humor is required.
After an errant pass whizzed off the halfboards right between Sippola’s skates and ricocheted toward center ice, he whistled play dead.
“It’s dangerous out here!” he quipped, earning a handful of chuckles from players on the bench behind him.
The atmosphere is particularly welcoming to East Lansing junior Austin Garrett, who is playing his first year with Eastside this season.
Garrett played at a higher level of hockey prior and said he was burnt out by it. On top of the hyper-competitive nature amplifying mistakes and multiplying pressure, Garrett said things become more competitive within teams. Players jockey for ice time and their preferred line pairings so they can advance their careers. Garrett found it to be turning him off a sport he loved.
The trappings of high school hockey — the lower level of competition and that it’s generally not a launch point for college careers — appealed to Garrett. He could play hockey and not worry about ice time or pressure to not trip up.
“It’s really fun playing at a really high speed of the game,” Garrett said about the high levels, “but at the same time, it’s super stressful because any mistake you make is detrimental. And not only that, if you make a mistake, you’re most likely gonna be sitting on a high level hockey team. In high school, you make a mistake, you make a mistake.”
Garrett, along with finding enjoyment in the pace and stakes of high school hockey, is also a particular fan of the Eastside student section. Much like the team, it’s an array of students from the various school districts. And they are rowdy — so much so that on senior night they were booted from the rink.
While that escapade was not the finest hour for the student fans, Garrett appreciates that such a crowd would come out and watch them play. Before his first game, he had no idea there would be people crowding around the glass to cheer them on. Then he went on and scored a couple goals in that game.
“It’s super fun having the crowd behind the net or in the stands and cheering for you. Just going crazy. You feed off that — that’s super welcoming,” Garrett said.
Though there were no goals to celebrate for Eastside on senior night — they fell, 2-0, to Mattawan — that was not the biggest focus.
After the game ended and each team shook hands at center ice, the Eastside players posed for some pictures with friends before going to change and join a reception for the seniors in the lobby.
Win, lose, or draw, the seniors were going to be celebrated, as is the fact they got to play hockey together.