By Paul Costanzo
Special for Second Half
Larry Camp is happy to be focusing on hockey.
The coach of the first-year Eastern Thumb Area Legion hockey program – also known simply as Ubly – had been working since February, navigating the politics of school boards and paperwork to create an opportunity for athletes in the Thumb to play high school hockey.
“Come about October, all I kept telling my other assistant coaches was, ‘I just can’t wait to get on the ice,’” Camp said. “Everybody was like, ‘How’s your team? What’s it going to be like?’ I kept saying that I won’t know until our first game. When that first game came, it was a huge relief.”
Student-athletes from seven schools which make a 151-mile circle in Huron and Sanilac counties have come together to form the team, which is competing without a conference but in Division 2 for the MHSAA Tournament.
Sandusky, Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker, Bad Axe, Deckerville, Croswell-Lexington and Marlette join Ubly as schools providing players for the team. The Legion plays its home games out of Colleen J. Howe Arena in Sandusky and also holds practices at the Huron County Expo Center in Bad Axe to try and cut down on the constant travel some of its players would have to endure.
“I grabbed a map and looked at where we thought we could pull kids from – where would be the seven best school districts that we could fit,” Camp said. “What we looked at was where the two ice arenas are, and we tried to make a straight line up and down. When word got out, we had five or six other schools call us that wanted to get (involved). They really wanted to join, but we already had our seven.”
Twenty-seven players came to the first tryout, and Camp said he’s carrying a roster of 23. The numbers surprised him, but the desire to play high school hockey was high for kids who had spent time in the Huron and Sanilac county hockey associations.
“I was going to stop playing hockey this year because of the drive (to Bay City) – it was an hour and a half to practice,” Legion captain and Sandusky senior Jarod Coon said. “Now, it’s where I go to school. I love hockey, so it’s real nice to keep going.”
Coon, who plays center, has been playing hockey for more than a decade, joining teams in Port Huron, Mount Clemens and Bay City after starting his career in Sanilac County. His story isn’t uncommon on this team.
Marlette senior goaltender Chad Bower, also a captain, had been playing hockey since he was 5 years old and doing so without ever having the prospect of playing for his high school.
“I played travel my seventh and eighth grade year, then the next year my team dismantled,” he said. “Some of the boys went to (Saginaw) Heritage, Davison, stuff like that. That next year, I had to come back and play football. I was actually really excited (to play high school hockey), but then at the same time kind of mad, because it was already my senior year.”
Collecting excited and experienced hockey players wasn’t an issue for Camp. But even after petitioning school boards, attending meetings and getting the approval from the MHSAA in July, he still had to create a schedule for his team – which can be difficult for an independent and a newcomer. Through some more hard work, he was able to get to a full 26 games.
“I didn’t know any athletic directors, didn’t know their contact information,” he said. “I went to the MHSAA website and looked up names and numbers. The coach from Port Huron Northern (Daryel McCarrel) helped me a lot. The guys from the Imlay City team, the Alliance, those guys gave me a lot of contact info. I must have sent 150 emails, and I could barely get my number of games.”
The schedule mostly features teams from the region, such as Lapeer, Bay City and Port Huron. But there was a trip to Dearborn already, and Mount Pleasant will make its way to Sandusky later in the season. The Legion also played a pair of games against Tawas, the state’s other new hockey program this season. Tawas won the first meeting, 3-2, and the teams played to a scoreless tie in their second meeting.
“That was pretty cool with it being our first season and their first season,” Bower said. “We did like a first-year gift exchange, stuff like that. It was really cool to be a part of that.”
The Legion has started 2-3-1, and players are working not only to get used to coach Camp’s systems and the pace of the high school game, but also to each other.
“We just try to be friendly to each other, pretty much,” Coon said. “We haven’t done too much outside of practice, but we’re looking at going to the playoffs with the college teams at Little Caesars (Arena), just for some team bonding. I kind of thought it would be (weird playing with kids from rival schools), but it’s not really. Some of the people, I either don’t know them from other sports, or they’re just really good guys, and I like them anyways.”
When it comes to setting goals for the season, players are keeping things realistic. Bower said that while a deep run in the Division 2 playoffs would be great, he’s first focusing on the team finishing above .500.
Of course, as the first year of the program, it’s also about much more than this year.
“I’m interested to see what it turns into if it keeps going, which I really hope it will,” Coon said. “To see what it turns into in 15 years, then I can come back and say, ‘I was the first captain on that team.’ Right now, we’re looking to set up a good name for ourselves, so a lot of kids that didn’t try out this year or maybe didn’t know about the team will know about it and are excited to try out for next year. I guess we’re just trying to get a good reputation. And win some games.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Legion goalie Chad Bower, left, meets with this counterpart from Tawas during their first of two games against each other this season. (Middle) An Eastern Thumb Area player launches a shot against Port Huron. (Photos courtesy of the Eastern Thumb Area hockey program.)