Hockey runs deep in Burrillville. The town’s junior hockey league started in the early 1950s making it one of the oldest youth hockey leagues in the country. The town also boasts one of the oldest public rinks attached to a high school. Today, families continue a tradition of hockey prowess.
As part of our series One Square Mile: Burrillville, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender spent some time at the local hockey rink.
Most days of the week, Randy Hopkins can be found at Levy Rink next to Burrillville High school. Two of his kids play hockey, they’re eleven and thirteen. He coaches the Pee-wees, that’s 11 and 12-year-olds in youth hockey lingo. All this makes hockey practically a second job.
“It’s a way of life, there’s no other way of describing it, you talk to other people and they’re like you’re crazy,” said Hopkins. “People that I work with, they’re like you’re out of your mind. Why, what else would I be doing?”
Like many at the rink, Hopkins grew up in Burrillville, a collection of old mill villages at the northwestern corner of the state. He’s been on the ice since he was a kid. He played on high school teams that won state championships. Now as a parent, and a coach he watches his son’s team work on passing drills.
Hopkins said some Sundays he and his boys are arrive at the rink by the crack of dawn. The sounds of sticks slapping pucks, and blades carving the ice fill through the domed structure. The players learn to locate their teammates just by listening for the sound of their skates
“You can’t hear them talking out there,” said Hopkins. “You can’t hear them, you can hear the coaches. Believe it or not you learn to listen to find out where somebody is.”
In this town of fifteen-thousand, residents have an almost religious devotion to hockey. On this weeknight, dozens of parents mingle about the rink in shifts, as wave after wave of youngsters get onto the ice for youth hockey league practice.
Beth Coleman is one of the many hockey moms and dads.
“We’re at Levy Rink, on a usual Wednesday night, and practice is just getting out, and this is the Squirt level,” said Coleman.
Again, for the uninitiated, squirts are between nine and ten years-old. Beth Coleman, like Randy Hopkins was raised in Burrillville. Burrillville Junior Hockey League caters to kids from elementary through high school.
“It was just part of life growing up,” said Coleman. “If you didn’t play hockey you knew someone who played hockey and it was just something that you did on a Friday and Saturday night, and you came out here and the stands would be literally packed from head to toe.”
Now Coleman has children of her own and they’re on the ice three to five days a week, plus weekends. It’s a level commitment to the game that non-locals like Danielle Szocik had to get used to.
“It’s just what’s in the area, and what everybody’s really passionate about,” said Szocik. “Everybody’s like your kids are going to play hockey.”
Szocik grew up just south of Burrillville and didn’t know anything about the sport, but watching her two young sons from the chilly stands, she said they took to it like any other local.
“These kids are like bred; there something in the water around Burrillville.”
Or something on the water. Burrillville is home to dozens of ponds, and temperatures dip well below freezing in the winter. That makes it an ideal home for a sport played on the ice.
It was legendary coach Tom Eccleston, who cemented Burrillville’s status as a hockey town. Born in Burrillville, Eccleston coached Providence College hockey in the 1950’s and 60’s.
According to a 1987 New York Times profile, Eccleston helped create Burrillville’s high school team in the 1930’s, and at 76 he returned as a coach. Randy Hopkins went to the state championships three times under his leadership.
“Everything I do is based on what he did, everything was repetition, and a lot of people don’t believe in it, but I’m a believer,” said Hopkins.
And now he’s raising his son to be a believer too. His son will soon try out for the Burrillville High School Broncos, just like his father.
“It’s a big deal,” said Hopkins. “That’s what everybody shoots for in this town; to wear that high school jersey.”
Despite the town’s widespread devotion to hockey, Hopkins sometimes worries about the future. He said high costs, and a multitude of private hockey organizations could threaten the numbers at the Burrillville junior hockey league.
“When I was playing everybody stayed here, everybody played for Burrillville junior hockey league,” said Hopkins. “Now you got guys going everywhere.”
But on this Wednesday night, hockey is alive and well in Burrillville, and the next generation is ready to slide onto the ice, and drop the puck.
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