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Long Island on the map as a burgeoning hockey hotbed

Not known as one of the traditional hockey talent producers, Long Island now has several first-round NHL draft picks to its credit.

Hockey has come a long way in America since the opening faceoff between Yale and Johns Hopkins in 1893, the first in recorded U.S. history.

The sport is now played across the country, and you needn’t look any further than the top pick of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Arizona-native Auston Matthews, for evidence of that growth.

Still, certain regions have always been the more traditional hotbeds—Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts, to name a few.

But along the northeastern coast, there is another locale that has entered the conversation, a 1,400 square mile slab of land surrounded by water on four sides, populated by nearly eight million and situated just across the East River from a major urban center. That would be Long Island, New York–the home of Bagel Boss, Billy Joel and, as has become increasingly clear, hockey.

Though the NHL franchise that once played there has since moved to Brooklyn, the many roots grown by the New York Islanders over the years are still firmly embedded. Long Island is churning out more professional hockey talent each year, in no small part because of the relationship between the Long Island Amateur Hockey League, the governing body for youth hockey in the region, and the Isles.

“For years, the Islanders have easily led the way for youth hockey,” says LIAHL commissioner George Hinz. “We used to play our games before their games. At the Nassau Coliseum, they gave you a discounted price and you only had to sell 100 tickets. The Islanders do a tournament every year, they bring in international teams. Even though they moved to Brooklyn, we still do a lot with them, even if it’s not as much as we used to.”

This past summer, Long Beach-native Charlie McAvoy went 14th to the Boston Bruins in the 2016 NHL draft. The defenseman became the second player from Long Island in three years to be selected in the first round of the draft. Sonny Milano, chosen at No. 16 by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2014, was the other.

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Also selected in 2016 was center Tage Thompson, who grew up playing hockey on Long Island and was the 26th pick by the St. Louis Blues, as well as Jericho’s Adam Fox, taken by the Calgary Flames in the third round at No. 66. And, in 2015, Jeremy Bracco of Freeport was a second-round selection of the Toronto Maple Leafs, going 61st.

McAvoy is a sophomore at Boston University, not too far from the rink he hopes to play in with the Bruins very soon. He credits his upbringing and Long Beach’s hockey culture for his success.

“I was a big Ranger fan growing up,” says McAvoy. “I idolized all their players. Long Beach itself is a Rangers community because they used to practice there, back when they used Long Beach Arena as their practice facility. That kinda dictated how the older generation decided to root for their team, and they obviously chose the Rangers and, because of that, they passed it on to their kids.”

McAvoy played for the Long Beach Apple Core program for a few years, before moving to the Long Island Gulls. His youth hockey experiences, including being coached by Bracco’s father, have been among the most memorable he’s ever had in the sport.

“The Long Island Gulls teams we had for a few seasons there, we had a great team with a lot of those guys playing Division I hockey and at the higher ranks, guys like Fox, Bracco and myself,” says McAvoy. “There are six Division I hockey players from that team, guys still playing junior hockey at a high-level right now. That group we had was very special, and I was able to make friends with those guys, and a lot of them I’m still friendly with today. I’m able to follow them on their path as they follow me, and that’s just really special, the kind of relationships I was able to make playing hockey on Long Island.”

Anthony Bitetto, a sixth-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2010 who has impressively earned a spot on one of the NHL’s deepest blue lines, hails from Island Park, NY, just outside of Long Beach. He echoes McAvoy’s sentiment about his upbringing.

“I was fortunate enough to live really close to Long Beach Arena, so I grew up playing there all through youth hockey,” he says. “I had a lot of good coaches over the time. The whole atmosphere in Long Beach, it kinda became a hockey town. Seeing Milano and McAvoy pick the next generation up and become high draft picks, it’s good for Long Island and hockey itself.”

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Like McAvoy, Bitetto also grew up as a die-hard Rangers fan, and emphasizes the team’s influence on his hockey career.

“Brian Leetch was kinda my role model. That’s why I wear “2” on my jersey. Seeing those guys play, I obviously wanted to get there as a kid, it’s your dream. And when your dream becomes reality, it’s cool to see guys from Long Island chasing that dream.”

Milano’s childhood interaction with hockey fandom was slightly different.

“I was a huge Islanders fan growing up,” he says. “They had success a little bit before I was born, but I think it definitely helped getting hockey big within the area, and kids starting to know the sport and follow it.”

Hinz says the participation figures for hockey on Long Island have doubled over the past ten years. “We’ve seen an increase in teams from 80 or 90 to over 200,” he says. “We have 210 in the league this year.” Hinz adds that this also includes some teams that are based in Queens and Brooklyn, boroughs of New York City that are geographically on Long Island.

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“We probably have close to 10,000 registered hockey players, and we also have a big growth of girls’ hockey in the last few years,” he says. “Ten years ago, there were probably half that number.”

Count Bitetto among those who likes what they’re seeing from Long Island, saying the quality of talent is undoubtedly improving.

“I think it’s definitely getting better and better,” he says. “The game is evolving, there are better trainers now. There are better organizations on Long Island. So, I think Long Island is going to start producing more players, and you’re starting to see that with McAvoy and the young guys, not just in the NHL who get drafted, but there are also a ton of guys that go play college hockey, and that’s also fantastic to see for Long Island.”

As for what the future holds, Bitetto expects the program to continue trending upward.

“When I go back in the summer and come to youth hockey camps, there are a lot more kids now than there were when I was growing up and playing,” he explains. “I think the game’s going to keep evolving. The more publicity that kids on Long Island get, the better. The more you see the Islanders and Rangers do well, that’s good for New York hockey in general. It’s very positive to see the amount of parents and youth hockey coaches that are putting in the time and effort to produce more players.”

Milano agrees that coaching has played a major role, and that the sport has grown tremendously in the area.

“They really focus on skill and developing it,” he says. “I think that most of the players that come out of Long Island are probably more skilled. I grew up in Massapequa, so I played for the Long Island Royals, then moved to the Gulls, playing with a lot of good players like Bracco, McAvoy, a bunch of players who were drafted or under contract. You can just tell, Rob O’Gara is with the Providence Bruins right now, McAvoy just got drafted in the first round, Bracco’s tearing it up in the OHL. You can clearly see there are a lot of good players coming out of Long Island.”

Hinz attributes much of Long Island’s recent hockey success to a philosophical and developmental shift from “old time hockey” to the modern game.

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“I think the new developmental model has gotten kids more involved,” he suggests. “More kids are touching the puck and there’s more emphasis on development of skills, rather than dumping the puck and chasing. It’s become a much faster game. We used to see a spike where the kids would start and then teeter out. Now, we’re seeing them stay around for longer.”

Not only are they staying around for longer, but there are organizations that provide equipment or monetary donations for kids who can’t necessarily afford to do so, says Hinz. “It’s not a cheap sport to play,” he says.

A common theme among the players who’ve come out of Long Island is a sense of connection to others who came before them.

“Growing up, you definitely hear about those guys, [Matt] Gilroy, Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek,” says McAvoy. “You don’t know them personally, but you feel a connection just being from Long Island and knowing that they’ve come up through the same path that you’re on. You think that, if these guys did it, why not me?”

It might not be as well-known as others around the country, but Hinz emphatically believes that Long Island is definitely a hockey hotbed now.

“We’ve had a nice success rate of kids going to college and to the pros,” he says. “We’ve had several years in a row with first round draft picks and guys who went later. Last year, we had five players from our league get drafted in the NHL. We easily get 25-30 kids a year with major hockey scholarships. We had a Hobey Baker Award winner in Matt Gilroy. Keith Kinkaid, who played in Suffolk, is with the Devils now. It does show you that Long Island has really put itself on the map.”