A Return Worth Celebrating

After A Trying Year, Atlantic District Celebrates What’s Been Done And What Is To Come

Like just about everyone else in the hockey world, USA Hockey's Atlantic District saw its annual events go virtual in the midst of the pandemic. 

The organization's annual meetings, which take place shortly after USA Hockey's Annual Congress in June, were held over Zoom. However, the organization decided to add an in-person element to celebrate the sacrifices and successes that made the season something no one would ever forget.

Led by president Glenn Hefferan, the Atlantic Amateur Hockey Association honored  award winners from the past two seasons while also acknowledging all of the hard work it took to keep hockey going during the pandemic.

Shut Downs And Start Ups 
Like so many other parts of the country, associations throughout the Atlantic District saw their facilities and seasons shuttered due to COVID-19. From the moment the shutdowns started, Hefferan looked to rally the local hockey community.

"I knew instantaneously that I had to figure out how we could cooperate," he said. "We were dealing with different shutdowns and different areas and how they handled it. We were tapping into medical resources, trying to make sure we were following the best protocols available."

As the facilities slowly reopened and hockey started up again, there were still plenty of challenges along the way. Besides that, AAHA had to establish trust with its members that things were going to work out. Part of that meant teams being formed without the all-important tryout process.

"All of our parents made a huge leap of faith with us," Hefferan said. "Everyone was just super cooperative."

Success On The National Stage 
As the season got going, teams across the country dealt with playing through the pandemic. That included Mike Bronzo's 14 & Under Woodbridge Wolfpack squad.

"We never knew what was going to happen," Bronzo said. "We just had to work through it and get our kids ready to play."

The Wolfpack worked through the challenges of the pandemic and qualified to compete  in the Chipotle-USA Hockey's 14 & Under Tier II Division 3A National Championships in Dallas. The Wolfpack went unbeaten in pool play and saved their best for last as they shut out the LA Jr. Kings to capture a national championship.

"A lot of our kids started at the Mite level," Bronzo said. "They stuck it out and got to reap the benefit of a USA Hockey event like that."

The Wolfpack's title was just one of the many success stories from the Atlantic District. The  New Jersey Avalanche won the Tier I 16 & Under championship, the organization's first Tier I title in more than a decade.

Celebrating In Style 
In January, AAHA announced its annual meeting in June would be a virtual event. Soon after Hefferan and others inside AAHA began to think the unthinkable of adding an in-person celebration to the proceedings.

"We realized we had never done anything to celebrate last year's award recipients," Hefferan said. "It was going to be too difficult to make our meetings in person. So, we decided to have a celebration of the people who made last season happen, and whoever could come would come."

Eventually, the event came together thanks in large part to the generosity of local sponsors, including the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils. The Flyers allowed AAHA to hold the event at its practice facility in Voorhees, N.J.

On June 24, many of the District's club leaders, staff, coaching educators and others made their way to Voorhees for the celebration commemorating the trying season the organization had endured.

"It was almost a catharsis for everyone," Hefferan said. "It was kind of a renewal and reset."

The event was hosted by hockey TV analyst and scout Dave Starman and featured video messages from esteemed guests including NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and Philadelphia Flyer winger James van Riemsdyk, a New Jersey native who cut his hockey teeth in the Atlantic District.

In-person attendees included newly elected USA Hockey President Mike Trimboli and Anthony and Marc Del Gazio. The former New Jersey Rocket players won a national championship this season with UMass.

The event went an hour longer than planned, but the audience didn't seem to mind. After spending so much of the season in lockdown, it was time for the crowd of 350 to enjoy themselves and the company of others.

"We got to shake off all of the bad feelings of being locked down,"  Hefferan said. "It was a reminder of how hard we worked to keep our rinks open."  

Ryan Williamson is a freelance writer based in Eden Prairie, Minn.



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