January 16, 2006

Fans a source of energy on the ice

Eustace goalie Colin Saltiel starred against St. Augustine in front of a lively crowd.

A half-hour before the puck dropped to start Friday night's New Jersey Interscholastic Hockey League game between Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine, the Vineland Ice Arena grandstands overflowed with students whipped into a frenzy by a well-worn rock anthem played at eardrum-rupturing decibels.

As the fans roared, a wave of teenage testosterone soon flowed at ice level where, just 19 seconds into the Southern Conference Red Division clash, a player for each team was sent off with coincidental minor penalties.

The season's initial meeting between South Jersey's premier varsity ice hockey programs offered a little bit of everything: board-rattling checks, exquisite skating, skilled puck-handling and sensational goaltending, all accompanied by a few chants that would make a nun blush.

The rough-and-tumble action wasn't restricted to the ice surface. While a mild scuffle broke out behind the Eustace net early in the second period, a Bishop Eustace fan hoisting a school flag got too close to the Hermits rooting section - and the banner and the student were sent in different directions as yellow-jacketed security moved in to restore order.

Colin Saltiel, the Crusaders' brilliant junior goaltender who stopped 31 of 33 shots to backstop Eustace to a 3-2 victory, admitted afterward to momentarily losing his focus on the playing surface.

"I couldn't help looking up into the stands a couple times," he said with a grin. "I think this is the best rivalry in the state. I wish everybody could get to play in this atmosphere."

Even though Eustace ran its all-time record against the Hermits to 16-1-1, Crusaders coach Mike Green acknowledged that the gap between the programs had been narrowing in recent years.

"The rivalry between us is, to me, important as a catalyst to get South Jersey ice hockey on the map," Green said. "I saw [club] players from Gloucester Catholic and St. Joseph in the crowd. Now we need to get the administrators at those schools to see that high school hockey can be played in a good environment."

Even though St. Augustine lost its perfect record somewhere in Saltiel's oversized glove, Hermits coach Ralph Triboletti was buoyed by the turnout and the passion shown by the fans.

"This was a great, great atmosphere," he said. "I wish it was like this at more games."

Some of the many spectators who stood three- and four-deep around the end boards shared an appreciation for the moment, regardless of the outcome.

Tom Sbalcio, wearing a Bishop Eustace letter jacket, watched intently at ice level while waiting for the start of his son Alex's junior varsity game.

"This has what the NHL's been missing, the spirit of a true rivalry and the energy that these kids bring," he said. "I don't like to see the nonsense in the stands, but because of the intensity you can expect all these games to be great."

Just a few feet away, Terri Breitenstine of Blackwood stood wrapped in a blue-and-white Hermits blanket. Peeking out from under her denim ball cap, the St. Augustine parent practically lived and died with every shift.

"I think this is great, it's so much fun," she said with a smile. "I like the games and the action, but what I like to see most is the enthusiasm of the kids and their support for their schools."

The rivalry is set to resume on Feb. 10 at the Flyers Skate Zone in Pennsauken.