S.J. becoming hockey hotbed
High school skaters are staying home to polish their skills

COURIER POST STAFF

January 8, 2004

PENNSAUKEN -- If you didn't know any better, you might have thought you were in some high school hockey hotbed. Somewhere really cold. Like Maine or Michigan or Massachusetts where preschoolers lace up ice skates even before they learn to tie their pee wee soccer cleats.

 

And it wasn't because winter weather finally invaded South Jersey Wednesday, making the gray-walled Flyers Skate Zone in Pennsauken feel as cozy as watching an outdoor game on a frozen pond in Minnesota.

 

The reason this game between Bishop Eustace Prep School and St. Augustine could've been confused with a scholastic match up from a northern states -- the ones that see ice before Christmas that isn't just in their after dinner drinks -- is simply because of the quality of play

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Both teams skated with ease, passed with purpose and checked hard with intelligence. It was for sure the best hockey you will find in South Jersey. But the Crusaders' 2-0 win over rival St. Augustine would've been good high school hockey anywhere south of Canada.

 

Not great hockey, but solid scholastic hockey.

 

Obviously, the quantity and depth of players from the traditional ice hockey states is still far superior to the New Jersey league that Bishop Eustace and St. Augustine play in. But the quality of play is good. That's all, just good.

 

Good is fine, too, which means it is a lot better than it was two decades ago and even two years ago.

 

Sure, this might sound like hockey heresy to the northerners, but hockey in South Jersey is now good enough where every kid who one day hopes to play in college doesn't pack his oversized equipment bag and head for the best hockey-playing prep school in Maine or Michigan or Massachusetts.

 

Hockey was good enough here for Anthony Flaherty to stick around and play his senior season for Bishop Eustace.

Last year, Flaherty explored the possibility of going to a prep school in northern Indiana. He had visited Culver (Ind). Academy while playing for his Mercer County Chiefs club team and got a taste of serious scholastic hockey.

So Flaherty thought about leaving his Cherry Hill home, boarding with a family and attending this school about a half hour outside South Bend, Ind.

 

But Flaherty chose not to play hockey at Culver Academy and instead stayed here to play for the Crusaders on their home ice off the Delaware River.

 

"You can play good hockey here now," Flaherty said. "It used to be high school hockey here was a joke, something to goof around with, but now there is more serious competition. It has gotten better my four years."

 

Flaherty, a defender, is one of the reasons the skill level has advanced light years past the street hockey rage when the Broad Street Bullies still ruled and every kid from Cherry Hill to Cape May wore an orange No. 16 Bob Clarke jersey.

 

The Crusaders' captain is skilled enough to switch from his customary defensive spot on the blue line to play center so he could mark the Hermits' high-scoring freshman Dom Morrone.

 

The increased skill level also could be seen in Sean Kohler, a senior center who scored late in the first period to give Bishop Eustace a 1-0 lead.

 

It could also be seen in Pete Ciullo, a senior left wing who assisted on the first goal, and in Tim Purwin, a junior defenseman who scored an empty net goal with 40 seconds left.

 

The rising skill level of players in South Jersey could mostly be seen in Colin Saltiel, a freshman goalie who stopped all 31 shots he faced. "New Jersey ice hockey is finally getting to the level where kids don't have to go away to play," Crusaders coach Mike Green said.

 

Green should know about the evolution of hockey in South Jersey. He grew up in Haddonfield, but 15 years ago, went to play high school hockey at Deerfield (Mass.) Academy. His brother, Bill Green, had started club hockey at Bishop Eustace as a sophomore in 1977, but he wanted better competition.

 

"If we had this caliber of hockey, I wouldn't have gone away," Mike Green said. "But back then, you had no choice if you wanted to be a good hockey player."

 

Reach Kevin Callahan at kcallahan@courierpostonline.com