The new Viking Middle School Hockey League, which involves teams from Beverly, Danvers, Peabody, Marblehead, Lynn and Winthrop, has made an immediate impact.
How much? Enough that those involved in the 10-game, 10-week league are already making suggestions that another middle school program perhaps should follow immediately.
The program, run under the auspices of the Viking Hockey School, is strictly for skaters who will be sixth, seventh and eight graders in the upcoming school year. Salem State coach Bill O'Neill and his brother John, the facility manager for the O'Keefe Center, are the organizers and co-directors of the VMSHL.
The league plays its games on six Friday nights (three games starting at 5:30 p.m.) and two Saturdays, playing two 22-minute running periods. The top four teams in the league will qualify for the single-elimination playoffs, and the championship game will be staged Saturday, Dec. 13 at Rockett Arena, kicking off the annual Northeastern Conference hockey jamboree for the high school kids.
Beverly has already established itself as the power of the league, having outscored three opponents 25-2.
"Beverly has some very impressive players," John O'Neill conceded. "It's a five-year-old middle school program and has played independently for all that time. (Coach) Jack Mitchell has 10 Select players (i.e., high level youngsters) who bypass their club teams to skate in the Middle School League when there are conflicts (between the two teams), and that's a great sign of their priorities. Jack is proud of that."
The league is only a few weeks old, but already observers are singing the praises of young Beverly hockey talents like Conor Irving, Ace Cowans, Matt Hamor, Jack Straw, Graham Doherty and Bryce Mitchell.
Irving, Cowans and Doherty all are good for 2-3 goals each in every game, said their coach.
Mitchell looks over the roster and says "for 1996-97 birthdays, this is probably the best group I've seen in 20 years. They can play with anyone their age in the country."
The entire country?
"The country," Mitchell repeated. "If you saw the talent, you'd understand. It's huge that they come back for the junior high games. They enjoy being together — and we do have terrific talent."
But who wins and who loses in the Middle School League is not the primary goal.
"When my brother Billy and I discussed this, we were aiming for something structured. There was a linking missing," John O'Neill said. "There was a void. The Viking Hockey School had arranged for programs at almost all levels, high school boys and girls as well as the lower groups. But the sixth, seventh and eighth grade kids was an area missing.
"We wanted NEC teams to start up (at the middle school level) with the rivalries which already exist at the varsity level. We wanted to prepare these kid for high school hockey, showcase them for their parents and friends and the high school coaches."
There are two NEC varsity coaches involved in the program, said O'Neill. Marblehead head coach Bobby Jackson is one of the league's officials, while Peabody High head man Mark Leonard handles the Peabody middle schoolers.
"Teaching is stressed. They have a couple of years to work on their skating before high school," said John O'Neill. "We told all the coaches not to worry about winning; the idea was to get established.
"This is a chance for the kids to grow in hockey with their classmates, to mix with those whom they'll play against in high school, and learn how to be competitive. It'll be an invaluble experience."
The six teams jumped at the opportunity to join up.
"We were filled up (six schools) in about a month-and-a-half, and the attendance has been good," O'Neill said. "We'll also have three seminars on rules, nutrition and weight training."
O'Neill, a former Salem State hockey captain, said Salem didn't respond to an application, Gloucester plays an independent hockey schedule at the middle school level, and Swampscott had already committed to a fall schedule.