Potential ice hockey team debated in Sayreville

Tom Brenner

SAYREVILLE – Whether the Sayreville School District will have an ice hockey program is a topic of debate among Board of Education members.

Superintendent of Schools Richard Labbe said, during a June 13 board meeting, that he had been contacted by parents about creating an ice hockey program at Sayreville War Memorial High School when he joined the district in 2014, but due to New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) regulations at the time, Sayreville was unable to partner with an existing ice hockey program in another district.

Labbe said he was notified by athletics director Jenn Badami that the NJSIAA regulations had since changed and Sayreville would be able to partner with the neighboring Old Bridge School District for an ice hockey program. Sayreville students, according to Labbe, would join Old Bridge’s ice hockey team.

In order to partner with Old Bridge, at least 10 Sayreville students would have to participate in the program, according to Labbe.

The superintendent said that the cost of the ice hockey program would be between $15,000 and $20,000 annually.

Board President Kevin Ciak asked if the board was willing to allocate $20,000 toward the district’s athletic program and use the allocation to explore hockey or another area, which prompted a variety of responses from board members.

Board member Thomas Biesiada said he believed the focus should be on a program most beneficial to Sayreville students and that program did not appear to be ice hockey.

“Before the board, there’s been many a parent who came here and wanted a program for their child,” Biesiada said. “I look at it for all the students here in Sayreville. One of the issues that came up many years ago is that [the parents] wanted a volleyball team. And we made an agreement on the board that for the next sports program that we would initiate would be for all of the students in Sayreville High.

“I think that the priority at that time was we were going to look at volleyball because of the fact that we could have a boys and girls team that can compete conference-wise,” Biesiada said. “That’s what I thought we were going to do, go with the volleyball team.

“The other issue that I have is that I follow this young man from Monroe [who is] paralyzed [and] played ice hockey,” the board member said. “He got checked [into the boards during a game] and he is paralyzed. He has very little movement of his body. Would our insurance cover something like that? That is another issue because [a student] may be playing [for] an Old Bridge team, but Sayreville is liable because he is our student.

“These are issues that have to be addressed. We can’t just say yes [on an ice hockey program]. I’d rather see a sport that’s going to affect all of our Sayreville students instead of just a handful of Sayreville students.”

Board Vice President Phyllis Batko also found that other sport programs currently not offered in the district seemed to be more popular than ice hockey.

“I remember we did take a survey years ago and volleyball was the one that had come up,” Batko said, “so I think it’s worth redoing it because volleyball was supposed to be the next sport. We had lacrosse here and we nixed it, I remember, because it was very expensive. I would be interested in a new financial [study] for lacrosse to see how that comes across. We did have quite a few kids who were interested in lacrosse and I would hate to say yes to hockey after we said no to lacrosse. I’m OK looking into it, but I would like to see what the kids want first.”

The possibility of partnering with another district’s athletic program was a source of interest for board members John Walsh and Beth DePinto.

“I think [a co-op is] definitely a very creative way to, in tough times, explore more opportunities for our students and I’m all for exploring it, as well as exploring some other opportunities, including lacrosse [and] volleyball,” Walsh said. “I think it’s something we should continue to research and we have to be creative with some of the ways we’re going to keep up with other schools. I know a lot of schools around us have lacrosse now. The other issue I want to look into with hockey too is can we sustain a team after two years?”

“I think we should look into [the co-op],” DePinto said. “A few years ago, when we got rid of all of our gymnastics programs, we did have a girl or two [who] actually partnered up with East Brunswick and worked out with their team. It was on her own, we paid very little for what she did, but she co-oped with East Brunswick. So we have co-oped before for other sports. But I think we should look into what the need is and what the want is and go from there.”

Ciak emphasized that the board should focus on funding academic programs over athletic ones.

“We [recently] talked about cutting funding for the FBLA [Future Business Leaders of America] trip and cutting funding for the OM [Odyssey of the Mind] championship,” Ciak said. “I’m not going to support investing in athletics at the expense of academics. So if we’re still heading in that direction, then I’m not investing in the athletics side.

“When I watch [student videos about the high school], so many of them focus so much on the sports piece,” Ciak said. “So my question to the board is, what do we want [our high school] to be known as? When [the students] were marketing the high school, [sports] was the focus that the students chose as to what is Sayreville War Memorial High School. I didn’t see the business programs, I didn’t see Odyssey of the Mind. The message that the students sent us through those videos, I think is a compelling message. I’m okay looking into [a hockey program] as long as the board is interested in funding the academic side.”

Board member Daniel Balka shared the beliefs of his colleagues in that funding should be primarily directed toward academics and any new athletic program should be the one desired by most students.

“I agree with [Ciak] about academics over athletics and $20,000 for 10 players is a big chunk for me,” Balka said. “So I want to look at all the sports, see what the kids want next and do a cost analysis. Let’s see what the kids want and see if we can give it to them.”

Board member Anthony Esposito also discussed areas where the $20,000 might be better allocated toward.

“I’d like to see some sort of cost analysis,” Esposito said. “I know from speaking to people throughout the years, volleyball seems to be the thing that people really like. Also, we’ve heard from band members whose equipment is falling apart. Their uniforms are tearing and they’re taping their trumpets together. I don’t know right now if I’d be willing to commit $20,000 to just [hockey].”

Board member Michael Macagnone voiced his support for the potential ice hockey program.

“I am not going to argue with academics versus athletics, but we do run a school district here and we do have sports,” Macagnone said. “If I had to vote tonight to fund hockey, if you had 20 kids interested, I would say absolutely. We have wrestlers, we have football. There is much more contact in football [than hockey]. Kids get hurt playing football, they get hurt playing soccer.

“I remember when we justified to the public about putting this turf field out here [by the high school], we said you can play lacrosse on here, too,” Macagnone said. “And every time somebody came up for a lacrosse team, we had a reason not to do it. That is what I like about board members, we can always tell you why we can’t do things. Now we have an opportunity to actually do something. So if you have 20 kids [who] come here and say [they] want to play hockey, I say let’s do it.

“My concern is, though, that if 20 or 30 kids want to play hockey, but five only make the team, we’re spending $20,000 for five kids, so I’d much rather fund our own team,” he continued. “But if we have to get a kickstart by going to Old Bridge, I would support that if you have the numbers to do that. And I think if you put surveys here in this town, I think you’d get 30 kids who want to play hockey. We don’t hear it because we don’t have a team.

“There’s a direct correlation between kids [who] play in afterschool activities and sports and how that directly affects their behavior in school and their academics. So I would support that,” Macagnone said.

Contact Matthew Sockol at msockol@newspapermediagroup.com.