Piney Orchard Ice Arena, home to the Maryland Black Bears Junior II hockey team, buzzes with activity now just as it did 20 years ago when I was a hockey mom. My husband, our son—who had played hockey since he was nine – and our two-year-old grandson attended the Bears’ second pre-season game on 7 September, and it was like a homecoming for us. Anyone involved in youth hockey knows that the game becomes a family obsession because of the competition, the long hours of practice, multiple games a week, and road trips to distant ice rinks. Memories of all that came rushing back to us when we set foot in the door.
The intensity of hockey is contagious to those who watch it, and the Black Bears take that intensity and kick it up a notch. These kids, ages 16 to 20, are playing for more than just winning games. They’ve left home to work with a professional-level hockey organization to become good enough to win a spot on highly competitive college teams and then, hopefully, go on to the NHL. Annapolis residents and visitors are fortunate to have the Bears’ high quality of play in our backyard because most of the 26 Junior II level teams in the North American Hockey League are in traditional hockey strongholds of the US.
The players are billeted with local families, who get $400 per month to care and feed a Bear. One such volunteer hockey mom had three Bears staying with her, one of them from Sweden, and she spoke in the highest terms about their comportment and the way the Black Bears program supports the players on and off the ice. The team prides itself on seeking out good relations with the local community, and Coach Clint Mylymok told me that he considers these outreach efforts to be a key part of his player development program.
Team president Robyn Remick, a former executive at ESPN, told me that the Bears organization works hard to promote attendance at the game, and even at the pre-season game, the crowd filled a good portion of the stands. Unlike youth hockey, where the fan base consists of the players’ family members, the fans of junior hockey teams come to the games to see excellence in the sport. Robyn’s outstanding a cappella rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner when the guest performer canceled at the last minute was a clear sign that all members of the staff will jump in to maintain the organization’s high standards. Piney Orchard, itself, is one of the nicest ice arenas this hockey mom has seen, and fans can buy food and drink—pizza, hot dogs, beer, wine, soft drinks, etc.—at the in-house concession stand. The arena is also well-equipped for parties in Bruno’s Birthday Den, complete with bakery goods supplied by Cake Artista
The Black Bears made a great impression on our grandson, who sat happily absorbed in the game, erasing our fears that he would only last five minutes and then want to leave. I told him that this was a place where he could jump around and yell as much as he wants. We practiced key phrases together, like “Shoot the puck!” “Clear the zone!” and “C’mon, ref, let ‘em play!” As we walked out toward the end of the second period, we stopped, and his dad held him next to the glass to watch. Other fans commented that he didn’t even flinch when players crashed the boards in front of him. We told them with confidence that the game is in his blood and that he—and we—would be back soon.