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CT Polar Bears Trick to Success? Give ‘Em a Break

07/21/2014, 3:45pm MDT
By Mike Scandura - Special to

Despite their amazing run of success that stretches for nearly three decades, the Connecticut Polar Bears don’t require their girls to play hockey 24/7 and 365 days per year.

That aspect of the organization’s philosophy is driven home like a slap shot from the point.

“We encourage girls to play other sports,” Graham Gill, the association’s player director, said. “That becomes attractive to prep schools. These girls are the ones who are well-rounded academically and not in a one-track mindset.

"The biggest question I get from folks outside the organization this time of the year is, ‘We love the Polar Bears, but when are your spring or summer leagues?’ We only run skill-based sessions. We don’t run teams like Under-10 in the spring.

“You can’t tell a 9-year old to stay on skates all year,” continued Gill. “They have to make different sets of friends. We highly encourage that.”

Gill then cited his daughter as a perfect example of the type of balance that the Polar Bears emphasize.

“Recently there was a lacrosse jamboree where my daughter’s teammates were on opposite teams,” Gill said. “Everybody had a lot of fun. We also have rec basketball. We want them to take a break from hockey.”

But when the Polar Bears are on the ice, they not only win championships but they also produce Olympic-caliber players.

The Polar Bears, who were founded in 1985, have captured 11 national championships in various age groups.

When asked why the Polar Bears have been so successful for nearly three decades, Gill didn’t hesitate a second to answer the question.

“I think the real answer is we are truly an organization that focuses on the betterment of our girls,” he said. “We’re supportive of them as hockey players and make sure they get exposure to schools. We’re an organization full of volunteers that want to make the players successful including off-ice, which means getting them into a private school and into college.

“It’s an organization that’s focused on the child as opposed to ‘We want to go out and win 75 games.’”

In fact, Gill said, “If you want to play 75 games, this may not be the organization for you.”

In both Tier I and Tier II, the Polar Bears focus on skills over games, with the association adopting the principles of the American Development Model.

“If you want to learn to play hockey, this may be the organization for you because we emphasize the basic skill sets,” he said.

That this philosophy has been successful is underscored by the number of alumni who excelled at or beyond the college level.

For example. A.J. Mleczko, Julie Chu, Angela Ruggiero and Sarah Vaillancourt each received the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award.

In addition, Chu, Ruggiero, Mleczko, Sue Merz, Gretchen Ulion, Jaime Hagerman, Kim Insalaco and Hilary Knight have played on U.S. Olympic Teams (with Merz, Mleczko, Ulion and Ruggiero playing on the 1998 gold-medal-winning team).

“When you’re growing up, if you were a Bruins fan you wanted to be Ray Bourque,” Gill said. “In girls’ hockey, there isn’t anything bigger than then Olympics. These girls don’t have the [Mark] Messiers or the [Wayne] Gretzkys, but these women really are role models.

“Obviously, other programs have great players, but to be in the first wave of that is important. We could capitalize on that more but we let it speak for itself.”

Just as important is the fact that once girls “graduate” from the Polar Bears, they don’t put the program in the rear-view mirror.

“We have alumni who are heavily involved in our program,” Gill said. “These girls definitely have not forgotten their roots. We tweet the Polar Bear alumni. If you listen to Julie speak, you can tell she’s forever grateful for the opportunity the Polar Bears provided her.”

The program also provides one of the country’s more popular tournaments: the Polar Bears Girls’ Ice Hockey Holiday Tournament, which has been held for 29 consecutive years. Only four teams encompassing about 60 players participated in the inaugural tournament. Now, more than 220 teams are involved.

“The tournament came out of the necessity to grow the game on the girls’ side,” Gill said. “Through a grassroots effort, we created a tournament that teams saved up for and served as a destination. There wasn’t anything for girls to go to like this.

“We’ve had teams come from as far away as Alaska and Florida. Last year, Florida brought three teams. It’s a destination to be. Scouts come. It’s been a holiday vacation for many people for years and really is a premier event for girls’ hockey.”       

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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