Having grown up in a hockey-playing family, complete with a backyard rink in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., Tom Barnett always knew he would be introducing his kids to the sport as soon as they were old enough to lace up their own skates.
If his oldest son, Oliver, liked the game, great. If not, that would be OK, too. There’d be no pressure from dad.
So when Oliver was 4 1/2, the Barnetts joined one of the Buffalo area youth hockey organizations.
And how did Day 1 as a hockey player go?
Pretty well for Oliver. Horrible for Tom.
Day 2 went much better – because it was spent somewhere else. Tom and his circle of hockey-playing friends formed their own organization.
“My kid’s 4 1/2, the kids couldn’t even skate around a cone, one coach dropped the F-bomb three times and one is talking like he’s trying to beat the Russians,” Barnett recalls. “I’m asking myself, ‘Did that happen when we were kids? Really, did that happen?’
“I figured there had to be a better way.”
Indeed there is. It’s called the Buffalo Shamrocks Hockey Club.
Dumbfounded by the unconscionable emphasis on winning and an all-too-prevalent me-me-me mentality that existed in too many programs, Barnett introduced the Shamrocks to kids ages 4 to 14 in Western New York.
“It’s not all about winning,” says 8-year-old Millard Young of Clarence, N.Y. “We learn that sportsmanship and effort are just as important.”
The Shamrocks, of course, want to win and do win. But they exist to do so much more. Namely, to teach teamwork, fair play and hard work.
Everyone plays. There are no tryouts. From an initial class of just 30 kids in the start-up year of 2001-02, there are now more than 300 in Shamrocks programs ranging from learn-to-skate to Bantam major.
When the inaugural class reached the high-school level, 17 tried out for the team at their school and 17 earned a spot on the roster.
But along the way to learning hockey, the kids also learn values. There is a dress code for all teams. Punctuality isn’t the right way, it’s the only way. Arena workers are addressed as “Miss, Ma’am or Sir.” Schoolwork can’t be put off. The locker room is always cleaner when the Shamrocks leave than it was when they arrived.
“There’s a saying in life, ‘Everything is new again,’ ” says Sally Obletz, whose 13-year-old son, Peter, has grown up in the program. “Tom has taken old-fashioned values, old-fashioned sense of fair play, and brought them back.”
The players learn to live and breathe the lifestyle.
“Sportsmanship, dedication, teamwork, that’s what it’s about,” says Alexander Vilardo of Tonawanda, N.Y., a 17-year-old senior to be at Canisius High School and a graduate of Shamrocks hockey. “It’s about molding kids for life.”
Except it’s a one-of-a-kind mold.
Like many youth programs, Shamrocks’ practices are high tempo and emphasize skill development. But then there are the outside-the-box ideas. Like bringing out a rope for a team tug-of-war. Or playing dodgeball on ice. Or tossing out of foam puck bigger than the Mites themselves and turning the kids loose. Or, the favorite once-a-year practice day for every Shamrock: Remote Control Sunday.
“Yep, we spend $250 for ice time and have all the kids bring their remote-control cars to play with,” says Barnett, who outside of hockey operates his own business, Tom Barnett Custom Tailored Clothing.
The hockey world has noticed the Shamrocks’ impact in Buffalo. Barnett was named winner of the Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership Award in June. (See ad, Page 7.) There were more than 70 nominations for the award, which recognizes youth players or mentors for their contributions to youth sports or education.
The parents of Shamrocks players weren’t surprised by the honor.
“Win, lose or draw, my son gets off the ice with a smile on his face, so that tells me it’s the right program for us,” Obletz says.
Young had started playing hockey in another program but transferred to the Shamrocks.
“The other organization just pushed the kids too hard,” says his mother, Michelle. “It was all win, win, win. Here, it’s about giving back, how we all co-exist.”
Not just at the rink, either. The Shamrocks planted a garden eight years ago at the Buffalo Zoo. They grow everything from squash to asparagus to collard greens, which are then fed to the animals. At times there are upwards of 80 to 100 kids and parents tending to the garden. Giving back to the community is important, Barnett believes.
“It’s just another way of building teamwork and camaraderie, especially after the hockey season,” Barnett says.
That’s right, that’s not a typo. He said after the season. The Shamrocks don’t and won’t go year-round. Or even nine months.
There is a brisk, hockey-packed, Oct. 1 to March 17 season of commitment.
“Then we want them to go ride a bike, play baseball, play piano, develop other interests, interact with other friendship groups,” Barnett says.
Oh, and the Shamrocks won’t break the bank, either. Travel is limited, and there might be one overnight trip a year.
“We’re not driving to Moncton, we’re not driving to Long Island, and it doesn’t cost a billion dollars,” Barnett says.
They are, however, gathering at the rink on Saturday nights for 3-on-3 games of shinny hockey.
“I used to be a little jealous when my friends would miss school on Friday because they had a weekend tournament in Cleveland,” Vilardo says. “But Saturday night shinny, that’s what I looked forward to the whole week. My mom would make brownies or cookies, and I’d pass them out in the locker room after.
“Those games were so much fun.”
They were fun because it’s one big family.
“This isn’t just a hockey organization,” Vilardo says. “It is a life organization.”