Eight years ago, a group of interested hockey players from Lyndhurst got together and wondered whether they could actually field an ice hockey team.
But it was not going to be an easy chore. Simply because Lyndhurst didn’t have an ice rink and as a small Group II enrollment school, Lyndhurst High School didn’t have enough athletes to field a competitive team on its own.
So in order to put a team on the ice, the Lyndhurst athletes needed to be part of a co-operative program, getting skaters from other schools to form a competitive squad, much like the way Lyndhurst and North Arlington formed a co-op wrestling program four years ago.
There are several hockey co-ops in place throughout the state, but the one that Lyndhurst’s athletes compete in may be the most unique. Lyndhurst is part of a hockey co-op with two other schools, namely Hackensack and Paramus. Those are two schools that aren’t exactly next door to each other and certainly not to Lyndhurst.
But the three-school conglomerate put their collective needs and wants together three years ago and formed the unlikely pairing. A year ago, the Paramus/Hackensack/Lyndhurst co-op posted a 7-7-5 record and suffered a loss to Marlboro in the first round of the NJSIAA state playoffs.
“It was an improvement,” said Denis Jelcic, the head coach of the hockey co-op who is also the head coach of the Lyndhurst boys’ soccer team. “I thought that we would like to get to 10 wins. That was the magic number we needed to get to the state tournament. “
Well, there isn’t a person alive who could have predicted that this unlikely group would have a 12-2 record as the season begins to wind down.
“I’m a little surprised,” Jelcic said. “But I’m also ecstatic. I never thought this was possible because we play in such a tough league (the Big North) with so many good teams.”
The team has wins this season against perennial state powers like Northern Highlands, Ramapo and Glen Rock.
“As a group, they’ve all stepped up,” Jelcic said. “They wanted to be a good team. They all wanted this to be a positive experience, to have fun and have a good time.”
Jelcic knew that the group needed something, a little dash of an ingredient, that had to come off the ice.
“We needed a team identity,” Jelcic said. “So we decided that we wanted to be the hardest working team in northern New Jersey. All the kids bought in.”
Yes, all 13 from Paramus, the 11 from Lyndhurst and the four from Hackensack. They all united with the one goal in mind – to outwork the opponent.
“We wanted the defensemen working for the forwards and the forwards working for the goalies,” Jelcic said.
And Jelcic organized activities off the ice.
“Like one night, we had a bowling night together,” Jelcic said. “Another night, it was movie night. It was just a way to get together. We needed the parents and the players together on the same page doing what we do, welcoming each other. A lot of people think it’s tough, because it’s three schools and three different groups of kids, but it’s not. The kids are so easy to deal with. It should be hard, but it really isn’t. It’s 100 percent a different animal than anything else. They want to prove to everyone that they are as good as their record. They know that they are going to work harder than anyone else.”
Jelcic said that he drew some inspiration from the Lyndhurst football team, which enjoyed a phenomenal season last fall, advancing to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship game.
“It really reminded me of Richie Tuero (the Lyndhurst head football coach),” Jelcic said. “He was the first to call me and tell me that there had to be a culture change, to go from losing to winning. We talk a lot. He said to me that the whole culture has to change and it can be done if it’s done right. Now, we have Lyndhurst kids going to Paramus basketball games. Everyone is aboard the train and it has been wonderful to watch. We just want to keep it going.”
One of the leaders of the team is senior forward and captain Sean Leonard. The Lyndhurst native, who also plays baseball in the spring, just recently tallied the 100th point of his career, an impressive milestone.
Leonard tallied his milestone point in a 3-2 loss to perennial state power Bergen Catholic in the opening round of the Bergen County tournament last week. He’s only the second player in the history of the program to reach the 100-point mark.
Just the idea that the Lyndhurst co-op actually played a competitive game against the mighty Crusaders is remarkable in itself.
“If you want someone to start the team working, he’s the one,” Jelcic said. “He’s the first one to get to the ice and the last one to leave the ice. That’s just who he is. He’s a strong skater who is smart with the puck. He goes to the goal strong. He’s just been tremendous.”
Leonard has 11 goals and 18 assists this season.
“He’s a good student who wants to further his education,” Jelcic said.
Leonard said that he began playing roller hockey at age seven, then eventually moved on to ice hockey.
“I played roller hockey in town, but ice hockey was another level, because I had to learn how to skate,” Leonard said. “It’s not like picking up a ball and throwing the ball. It’s a lot different.”
Leonard said that he steadily improved and joined a travel team in Montclair.
Leonard was encouraged by the way the current team – made up of three high schools – has come together for one cause.
“I think we’re all playing well together,” Leonard said. “I think the team chemistry is the key. We understand we’re from different towns, but when we get on the ice, we’re all together. If we all play well together, we would be a better team. It’s all a team effort. We’re on a run right now and it’s been fun.”
Leonard doesn’t know what the future holds. He knows how difficult it is to play collegiate hockey, so he’s going to weigh his options. Leonard is a good student and will not apply to colleges in order to play hockey or baseball. He hopes to major in biology with the idea of taking pre-med classes and eventually study sports medicine.
Another key contributor is senior forward Kyle Bouteloupt, who moved from defenseman to forward this season and the move has been tremendous, as Bouteloupt has collected more than 30 points this season.
“We needed him to move up to the forward line and he responded,” Jelcic said of Bouteloupt, who has tallied 12 points in the last three games. “He would do anything to make a play for his teammates.”
Bouteloupt started playing roller hockey in Lyndhurst when he was four years old.
“Once I got on the ice, I was hooked,” Bouteloupt said.
Bouteloupt said that he had no idea the team would be so vastly improved this season.
“I thought we would have a really strong team, but I didn’t expect anything like this,” Bouteloupt said. “We put a lot of work into this team. It’s called the Paramus team. We’re the Spartans and we wear those colors (blue and white) with the Paramus logo. But we’re one big happy family. We didn’t know each other, but we’re together now. It’s crazy how well we’re doing.”
Bouteloupt would love to major in sports management and hopes to play college hockey somewhere. Like Leonard, he’s a member of the Lyndhurst baseball team as well.
Junior Jonathon Berko is one of the team’s two goaltenders.
“He’s helped to change the face of the program,” Jelcic said. “He plays a lot of travel hockey and plays at a high level.”
Berko equally shares the net minding duties with Paramus senior Anthony Alliegro.
Lyndhurst sophomore Tyler McDowell is one of the team’s defensemen.
The forward lines feature a lot of Lyndhurst student/athletes. Junior Anthony Oddo and senior John Kulpanowski, the center back on Jelcic’s Golden Bear soccer team, are among the team’s forwards. Kulpanowski is the team’s most improved player, according to Jelcic.
Sophomore Jake McCann and junior Conor McKeon are getting more and more ice time as the season progresses.
The team is slated to face Madison, a top Group II program, this week.
“I wanted to see where we stand with the best teams,” Jelcic said. “This is a very jovial group. They want to be together.”
So all in all, the success story is beyond description.
“I like to say that we’re impressed,” Jelcic said. “It’s been an outstanding fun ride. I just hope it continues to March (the state finals). I think we’ve earned a lot of respect and they’ve earned that respect.”