BATAVIA — The sun has yet to rise on this early January morning and Evans Street in the Genesee County seat of Batavia is desolation boulevard.
IRR Supply Centers, Inc., which sits alongside the railroad tracks, doesn’t open for business nearly this early. Neither does Bill’s Auto, IRR’s neighbor across the tracks.
The door is also locked at the neighborhood’s favorite watering hole, Kelly’s Holland Inn, though, truth be told, that’s probably due to state liquors laws and not the habits of the clientele.
Thus, pretty much the only thing stirring in the crisp, frosty, quiet of the pre-dawn is the flag right across the street outside Falleti Ice Arena, which flutters gently in the breeze.
Every so often the starlit tranquility on this side street is interrupted by the sounds of an 18-wheeler shifting gears on nearby Route 63. And by a coach’s whistle and the joyous bellowing of high school teenagers, sounds muffled by the walls of the hockey rink.
It’s 6:02 a.m. on a Wednesday and the Batavia Notre Dame hockey team is on the ice inside Falleti arena for practice. Just like they are nearly every weekday morning.
This is called dedication to team. This is called a love of the game.
While many (most?) of their classmates are still asleep, the Fighting Irish hockey players are working up a sweat as they dart through drills.
To be up this early day after day to skate is borderline insane, some would say. Not to the players, parents and coaches, however.
“I just love it, everybody on our team does,” sophomore goalie Ethan Conrad said. “If you have a chance to better yourself and be with your friends, why wouldn’t you take it?”
Conrad lives in the Wyoming County town of Bennington, one of 16 players on the roster who live in nearby communities. He has a 35-minute ride to Batavia. His alarm goes off at 4:20 a.m.
“It definitely brings us together,” Conrad said.
The same is true for the parents. Whether it’s watching games or organizing rides before and after practice, it’s one big family.
“You need a ride, you need something, there’s always a parent willing to help out,” said Dale Hutchins, whose son Ethan and stepson Devin Grimshaw are sophomore forwards on the team. His eighth-grade son, Max, is a student manager. “You always hear that stuff and I never used to buy into it, but this really is a pretty special group.”
Hutchins is one of those helping. He plays taxi to a half-dozen players after practice, making sure they have a ride to school.
One of his post-practice passengers: sophomore forward Mikey Keeler, who lives about 18 miles north of Batavia in Albion. Keeler’s mother, Lauri, has him up by 4:30 for their 4:50 departure so she can drop him off at the rink.
“I’ll take him to practice and then go right to work,” she said.
Her son Matt graduated from Notre Dame in 2012 and until Mikey made the team last season, Lauri had a two-year break from the early mornings. Talk about misery.
“I missed it,” she said. “I missed it during Christmas break this year. I couldn’t wait to get back here. It’s addicting. It’s just a good group of parents and you enjoy being around them.
“And never once have I heard the kids complain about getting up for hockey.”
The jump-start-your-day, on-the-ice-before-sunrise practices have become a tradition for the Roman Catholic high school’s hockey program. When the program’s founder, the late Jack Porter, first volunteered to take the 6 a.m. time slot at Falleti in the 1990s, it was a way to save money on ice time.
“Batavia High School already had an established program and they had the afternoon time, so we didn’t have much choice,” said Dave Meyer, Porter’s long-time assistant. “And the school was not in very good shape at the time. Enrollment was low. We had to save money.”
Cost is still one of the reasons the 6 a.m. ice time works for Notre Dame, the state’s second smallest hockey-playing school. The school pays around $95 for an hour of ice, half the prime-time rate.
But coach Marc Staley wouldn’t change the time slot if he had won the $1.6 billion Powerball drawing. He’s convinced the early start to the day enhances education, builds character and creates structure. He says an uptick in grades during hockey is proof.
“They’re awake when they get to school,” said Staley, who is in his eighth season as the Fighting Irish head coach. “They’re up, showered and had an hour and a half workout.”
Academic success is a major part of the Notre Dame mission, Staley said. Like all schools, certain standards must be met or an athlete will face suspension. At Notre Dame, the academic reports come out weekly.
“The school makes no deals,” said Staley, who played at Rochester Institute of Technology in the mid-1990s and is a financial planner with LPL Financial.
That’s why, when the season begins, Staley stresses the importance of studies — and the consequences of letting schoolwork slide.
“He preaches grades first,” Dale Hutchins said. “If you’re not pulling your grades, you’ll sit.”
So far, so good. In the classroom and on the ice. All 23 players have remained eligible and the Fighting Irish lead Section V Division III with a 11-1 record and are ranked seventh in the state in Division 2. Three of the top four scorers in Section V — Ryan Webster, Cameron Clark and Finnish foreign exchange student Henrik Toivianinen — comprise Notre Dame’s top line. Conrad has the section’s third-best goals-against average.
“We have some pretty lofty goals,” said Webster, a junior from Batavia who is in his fourth varsity season.
Webster is one of the first to arrive at the rink, right after assistant coach Adam Reich opens the door. Reich is also a rink employee. Talk about the perfect match.
“The best part about this,” Webster said, “is you come home from school, do all your school work and then you’re done for the rest of the night.”
If you consider having until a 9 o’clock bed time the rest of the night.
“I tell the guys, ‘You should be going to bed when I put my kids to bed, and my kids are 6 and 8,’ ” Staley said. “But they’re all here by choice, and that’s when special things are going to happen. Nobody has to be at Notre Dame. Everybody wants to be at Notre Dame, and that breeds a really special atmosphere.”
An atmosphere that makes 6 a.m. seem like mid-morning. Section V is on Eastern Standard Time. The Fighting Irish have the Notre Dame time zone. “We’re two hours different,” Staley said. No other Section V hockey team always practices this early, though Irondequoit does so every Thursday at Lakeshore Ice Arena.
“It’s a lot easier to get up for school,” senior defenseman Brian Boscicki said, “when there’s hockey practice. There’s some real team bonding when you get up for practice at 6 in the morning.”
Like at the Tim Hens household in Le Roy. They live hockey. Grant Hens is a sophomore defenseman. Toiviainen, the exchange student from Finland, joined the family in August. And there’s sometimes a third member of the team in the house, too. To make his morning commute a little shorter, Clark, who lives near Caledonia, will spend several nights there a week.
In the morning, Tim Hens plays chauffeur down Route 5. “The hockey bus,” he says. “Our two daughters are in college now so we went from losing two to having three kids again.”
The two Fighting Irish sectional banners hang in the rink, from 1995-96 and 2011-12. Since this year’s team produces an average of nearly seven goals a game and allows fewer than two, they appear to be capable of making a run at a third trophy in February.
That’s why players are so willing to work in practice. And so willing to get up so early to get to practice.
“It’s better to play hockey,” Conrad, the goalie, says, “than to sleep.”