For high school-aged hockey players in the greater Elmira area, the options to showcase their skills in recent years have been limited.
Now they have found a new home to play in an organized league, at a varsity-like level, based in Binghamton.
The newly formed Elmira/Horseheads team, made up of students largely from the two school districts, joined the Broome County High School Hockey Association during the off-season. The team will make its league debut Thursday night against Chenango Forks at the SUNY Broome Ice Rink in Binghamton.
The team, called the Express, shares the burgundy and blue uniform colors of the Elmira High and Horseheads High sports teams, respectively. The 15-player team, which is not officially sanctioned by either school, will wear an Elmira Express logo on the right sleeve of its uniform and a Horseheads Raiders logo on the left sleeve.
“We are very excited for the Express program to be joining an established and respected league that is well supported by the community and their school districts,” Elmira/Horseheads coach Brett Peterson said.
The eight-school league includes seven teams affiliated with Binghamton-area high schools. Along with Chenango Forks, the league includes Binghamton, Johnson City, Vestal, Union-Endicott, Maine Endwell and Chenango Valley.
None of those schools have a varsity hockey program. Peterson, of Horseheads, said the costs are too high for schools to fund them.
“With the budget issues that schools are dealing with these days, I don’t think that you will ever see varsity hockey in the Binghamton or Elmira area,” he said.
Up until now, area high-schoolers had two options, an 18-and-under Midget program, and a recreational league that flourished a few years ago.
The Twin Tiers High School Hockey League featured five high schools when it began in 2005. The non-contact recreational league was popular for four or five years before interest waned partly because of increased player fees and rising costs for ice time. With just a few teams left, the program folded after the 2012-13 season.
Peterson said the Midget program had been “very consistent up until this season.” He said there is “a lot of passion” with the operators of the Broome County league, which has been in existence for more than 30 years.
“This fills a huge void,” Peterson said of the Broome County league.
Elmira/Horseheads is the first league team outside the Binghamton area.
Peterson said assistant coach Doug Jacobs of Horseheads, who made first contact with the league in May, was instrumental in getting the team in the league.
“It took a lot of communication back and forth,” Peterson said.
After a presentation to the league board in July, the team was voted in by a slim 4-3, margin. The first year is probationary and the team will again be voted on after the season ends.
“There were some people in that group who were skeptical about us joining,” Peterson said. “Some did not want an outsider. They liked the league the way it was.
“Our goal is just to fit in and be respectful of the league that we are joining while fielding a competitive hockey team.”
An opening in the Broome County league developed after Seton Catholic Central dropped out two years ago for lack of players. Elmira/Horseheads needed to entice players.
“There isn’t an abundance of kids who play hockey (at this age group),” Peterson said. “They allowed us to merge the two districts so that we would have enough kids to form a team.”
The Express still needed more players to meet minimum requirements, so for the first year they were allowed a few students from other districts.
The team consists of seven players from Horseheads, five from Elmira, and one each from Elmira Notre Dame, Thomas A. Edison in Elmira Heights and Wellsboro. The out-of-district players will be grandfathered onto the roster.
League teams are allowed up to 20 players. The 15-man Express roster, which has no seniors, is the smallest in the league.
“I believe in the future we are going to have a full roster,” Peterson said. “I think the interest is really going to be huge next season.”
Said Express captain Bryce Beecher, “It’s a good opportunity for us to play against different kids at a different level. A lot of kids (at school) are excited to come and watch and support the team.”
Beecher plays with a genetic hip disability that limits his flexibility. The Elmira High School junior said he will eventually need hip replacement surgery.
“He’s a remarkable person who plays like he doesn’t have a disability,” Peterson said. “He is everything you would ever look for in a captain. He’s positive, has a great work ethic and plays with a lot of determination.”
Teams in the Broome County league generally play twice a week from Thursday to Sunday. Their season runs from mid-November through mid-February, and the playoffs extend into March.
All Elmira games this season will be played at the league’s regular site on the SUNY Broome ice rink. Peterson said the 758-seat rink was sold out for last season’s league championship.
The Express practices Wednesday nights at First Arena. Peterson’s oldest son, Drew, played hockey at SUNY Broome and now serves as Express assistant coach.
“I think we are going to have a competitive team right from the get go,” Brett Peterson said. “We have a huge mix of size and skill.”
On Twitter: @SGRLevanduski