Kearny hockey team makes strides toward varsity status with some help

Although Tim Firth grew up in West Windsor, N.J., played hockey at Princeton Day School and later Hofstra University, he’s at home now teaching in Kearny.

“I’m in my 11th year in Kearny,” said Firth, a seventh grade science teacher at Lincoln School. “I’ve been here for a while now.”
He might be 34 years old now, but hockey is still a major part of his life, like it has since he was six years old. Firth still actively plays ice hockey and was a volunteer coach in the Kearny Recreation street hockey league that plays at the enclosed rink on Passaic Avenue near the futsol soccer facility.

Back in 2009, a few students went to the Kearny Board of Education to see if there was a chance to institute ice hockey as a varsity sport.

And if the students were successful in their attempt, they needed a coach. So who better to ask than someone who played on the high school and collegiate level and just happens to teach in the district?
“George King Jr. approached me and asked me if I could help them,” Firth said. “We’ve been quietly building it ever since.”
The program was strictly a club sport, meaning it was basically an extracurricular activity outside of the district’s jurisdiction. Slowly, but surely, the interest grew _ both from students and the school administration alike.

The biggest obstacle was finding suitable and affordable ice time.

“As kids graduate, the interest isn’t the same,” Firth said. “A lot of the kids played street hockey in the Rec league, but very few had skating experience, other than playing on roller blades.”
Firth decided to stick with it and coach whatever kids that were indeed interested.

“Part of the challenge and part of the joy I have is teaching the game that I love,” Firth said. “There’s a big learning curve teaching ice hockey. But we have kids that are skilled enough to compete at the high school level, as long as they show the commitment, the dedication and the heart. If they show those three, then we can accommodate all of it.”

Firth, along with co-coach Rob Kelly, who coaches both the boys’ and girls’ tennis teams at Kearny, will receive a little assistance this season. That’s because the districts of North Arlington and Secaucus have elected to join Kearny in a co-operative program, giving the team a taste of players from three schools.

Firth and Kelly will receive help coaching from volunteers Steven Kim, who helps with the skilled position players and former competitive figure skater Megan Neer, who helps with the speed skating.

Kelly is totally different from Firth. He’s a Kearny native and Kearny High grad who played soccer and basketball in high school. He was the starting goalkeeper on the 2002 Kardinal team that won the NJSIAA Group IV state title.

But Kelly is a hockey fanatic who started playing street hockey very young.

“I’ve always been drawn to the sport,” Kelly said. “I grew up watching Brian Leetch and Mark Messier and was drawn to the speed of the game. I was hooked at age 5. I just learned how to skate and started playing. Now, hockey is my favorite sport hands down. When I found out there was a hockey team in Kearny, I wanted to be a part of it. I’ve been on board from Day One when we started until now.”

And the tandem of Firth and Kelly couldn’t work any better if their names were Martin and Lewis, Fred and Barney or peanut butter and jelly.

“The relationship I have with Tim is fantastic,” Kelly said. “When it comes to details, I usually defer to him with decisions, because he’s the hockey guy. I basically run the defense and he runs the offense. You can’t ask for anything better.”

There’s also some diversification on the team that goes beyond the three schools. At a recent practice at Buchmiller Park’s rink in Secaucus, there were as many as six girls skating with the boys. There are almost 30 kids on the team, boys and girls.

“It’s the largest number we’ve ever had,” Firth said. “The kids are really great. New Jersey did a great thing by allowing these co-ops to be in existence, because some of these smaller towns wouldn’t have a chance to put a team on the ice. We have a good, young corps of players and this year, we should be competitive.”

The Kearny co-operative team is slated to face the Lyndhurst co-op (Lyndhurst, Paramus and Hackensack) Wednesday night at Buchmiller Park.

The Kardinals have a handful of players who have been on the ice for the last few seasons.

Leading the way is senior Patrick Grimm, who has been a player for the last three years. Grimm is a defenseman.

“He’s seen our program go through quite a bit over the last few years,” Firth said of Grimm. “He was a street hockey player who had a little bit of ice hockey experience, but he’s developed into a fine player. He should be our most reliable defenseman this year.”
Sophomore Greg Drefko is another solid defenseman.

“He’s a travel hockey player who plays hockey all the time,” Firth said. “He has a lot of hockey experience. He exploded onto the scene last year and just keeps getting better. He does a lot of leading by example.”

Junior Anthony Vianchini is a right wing/defenseman.

“He’s a very mature player who is extremely dependable and reliable,” Firth said. “He’s done well with his help of organizing the team.”
Senior left wing Collin Canaley is another who “has seen the team change,” according to Firth.

Senior Randy Astor is a center who “is one of the hardest working players we have,” Firth said. “He loves the sport. He never skated before coming to us, but he embraced the sport and now loves the game.”

Freshman Dominic Orrico is a goalkeeper.

“He came in as a street hockey player, but he’s just natural with his positioning on the ice,” Firth said of Orrico. “I’m really excited to watch him develop over the years.”

Senior Justin Davidson is a left winger.

“He’s very dedicated to the team,” Firth said. “He helped us get through some very lean years.”

Sophomore Brenden Jimenez is a center from North Arlington.

“He’s a very good skater,” Firth said. “He’s very skilled. I can see how happy he is getting the chance to play.”

Sophomore Sean Golon is another who has joined the squad after not getting a chance to play ice hockey in North Arlington.

“He’s a very experienced player who comes to us with the right attitude,” Firth said. “He’s another who leads by example.”

There’s no animosity or jealously with the three teams combining forces.

“The kids all welcome each other,” Firth said. “They love the sport and they love that they’re getting the chance to play.”

Kelly sees the enjoyment as well.

“It’s been tremendous,” Kelly said. “Seeing the kids from Secaucus and North Arlington get together with our kids make for an overall optimistic outlook.”

That’s what having a co-op program is all about, three schools coming together to form one solid unit. Perhaps this is the beginning of something special brewing with the Kearny ice hockey program.

The Kearny/North Arlington/Secaucus (KNAS) cooperative hockey program will be hosting a fundraising event at the new Chipotle, located at 190 Passaic Avenue in Kearny on Tuesday, January 9, 2018 from 4-8 p.m. A percentage of the receipts that night will go to the KNAS program, so make sure to stop by and help the new program get going in the right direction.

The program had a similar night at the Burger King on Passaic Avenue right before Thanksgiving and that was a success.

In any case, it’s for a good cause and it’s a good example of local businesses helping out local kids.

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer