By Lynne Hendricks
---- — NEWBURYPORT — They grow up skating on the same sheet of ice and lacing up their skates in the same locker rooms as they rise up through the ranks of their individual youth hockey programs.
But when Newburyport and Triton hockey players reach high school, there’s no rivalry greater than the one that pits the archrivals against one another for superior standing in the Cape Ann League.
Their rivalry goes back decades. But this year, the Clippers and Vikings are setting aside their competitive sides to team up on a campaign to upgrade the locker rooms at the Graf Rink, which coaches of both high school squads say are in dire need of repair.
“Two rivals are coming together for a really good community cause,” Triton varsity hockey coach Drew Wile said. “It’s something that I don’t think has been done.
“Everybody likes to do their football stadiums and individual school things, but this is pretty unusual to have two rivals work together like this.”
Wile and Newburyport varsity hockey coach Paul Yameen, together with a group of volunteers, have spent almost two years reaching out to former players, school alumni and fans in hopes of funding two new state-of-the-art locker rooms that will give each high school team their own digs.
“Currently, the locker room situation at the Graf is inadequate for both teams, especially for the high school,” Yameen said. “We’re looking to build a 20-by-100 locker room and split it in half. Each team will have their own locker room and shower, which will alleviate numerous problems in the rink as well as give our kids a great opportunity to have the type of facility they deserve.”
With participation in both hockey programs at an all-time high, Yameen and Wile believe it’s time the players receive the kind of space enjoyed in the home rinks of other big hockey towns throughout the commonwealth.
The Graf is currently utilized by Newburyport and Triton youth and high school programs, plus a thriving figure skating club. And with girls participating in hockey like never before, the coaches say there is great potential in the near term for high school girls’ hockey teams to need use of the rink, too.
“I can foresee in the near future having a girls team (in Newburyport),” Yameen said. “But the facility is not made for boys and girls to be in the same locker room area. We’ve had issues with that.”
With varsity players utilizing one of the four rooms currently available at the Graf, it’s not uncommon to have coed youth teams and the parents of those players milling about while the older players are getting dressed or using the showers.
“It’s just not a good situation,” Yameen said.
The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which owns the skating rink, recently offered clearance for the project and donors are stepping forward to help reach the $200,000 goal. After years of planning, a green light for the project is now closer than ever, Yameen said.
“We have had a verbal commitment for a donation through a well-known business,” Yameen said. “He pledged $25,000 and said he was going to speak with all the banks about matching his donation.”
Wile added that an architect with deep ties to the Salisbury area has pledged his involvement as well, and a few people have stepped forward to offer their time and crews to save on labor costs. The remaining funds will hopefully come from the legions of players and fans who have grown up bearing their school colors, be it crimson and gold or blue and white, they said.
“Through the years, how many hockey players have come through that building,” Wile said. “It’s a community arena and it’s used by these communities.”
Wile and Yameen are joining with the booster clubs for both programs to host a joint fundraiser on Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Elks Club in Newburyport, across the street from the Graf Rink. The event will follow the Triton vs. Newburyport varsity hockey team at the Graf at 4 p.m. It will be the second time the teams meet this season.
The fundraiser, which will start at 6 p.m., will feature the music of the Old Brigade Band, an Irish band that opens for the Drop Kick Murphys. There will be a catered dinner and silent auction offering such items as vacation homes, sports memorabilia and gift certificates to local restaurants and stores. Tickets are $50 and will be sold at every Newburyport and Triton home hockey game leading up the event.
Wile and Yameen hope the event raises $25,000. In addition to seeking the backing of the community and anyone who uses the rink, they would like to see some former standout players who entertained crowds over the years returning to support the effort.
“We’re trying to reach out to our alumni as far back as we can go,” Wile said. “I’m sure (alumni) would have loved to have had a locker room like the ones we’re hoping to build.”