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Choosing between team, all-stars can be difficult for hockey players

| Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Ford City's Jesse Valasek fights his way through a double team by Mitchell Gregory (left) and Andrew Vonada during a 6-2 home win over Hollidaysburg on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013.

Ford City senior forward Jesse Valasek faced a dilemma. The PIHL Open Class All-Star Game, scheduled for Sunday at the Robert Morris Island Sports Center, butted with commitments to his travel hockey team, the Mid-State Mustangs Midget U18-AAs.

Faced with a choice between the two, Valasek, a three-time all-star selection, admitted he would've likely skipped the all-star game and played for the Mustangs.

Fortunately for him, several of his teammates, including Kittanning's Hunter Grafton, also earned all-star honors. The Mustangs' game was rescheduled because of the number of conflicts.

Valasek was relieved that it was a decision he didn't have to make.

“If it came down to one or the other, yeah (I would've played travel),” he said. “But (the all-star game) is a privilege and a lot of fun. I think it's a great opportunity to play with all of the kids that made it.”

The PIHL All-Star games highlight travel versus scholastic hockey tug-of-wars many local players face. With interscholastic and amateur calendars overlapping, conflicts can — and frequently do — happen.

Often it leads to missed practices, sometimes a skipped game or two. At the all-star game, a large number of players tends to miss out each year. The number of gameday changes to the rosters can look surprising at first but only until one sees how many all-stars play for both PIHL and travel hockey clubs.

Deer Lakes coach Todd Luniewski, in his first year at the helm of the school's reinstated varsity squad, was selected as coach of the Class A Northeastern team against the opposing Southwest. Alle-Kiski standouts on the Class A Northeast roster include Kittanning's Grafton and linemate Christian Miller, Freeport's Gregory Newman and Deer Lakes' Tommy Lisowski and Zach Luniewski.

The pair of Deer Lakes forwards faced such an either-or proposition: Do they play in a key matchup for their Butler Valley U16AA or in the all-star game? Unlike Valasek's situation, the Dawgs' opponents were less accommodating and refused to reschedule.

“They both responded with, ‘Yeah, I'll miss right away,' ” the elder Luniewski said. “I think they were honored to make it to the all-star game. I know it was.”

Todd Luniewski also coaches the Butler Valley Midget U16AA team and, like his son, will attend the PIHL event. He said that the decision was easy for him because of the availability of three other coaches who can step in for him. Players, he noted, tend to face more dire circumstances.

“Some travel teams tell players that if they miss, they'll sit,” he said. “But it's a tremendous honor to be selected.”

If the players had opted to withdraw from the all-star games, they would have been replaced with one of five preselected alternates. Just like with all-star selections, coaches can't vote for their own players.

Longtime Ford City assistant coach and first-year head coach Glen Kilgore was named coach of the Northeast Open Class team. He knows of two players scheduled to miss for his side. Pat Hunter of Indiana has a travel hockey commitment, while Logan Davis of Greensburg Salem will attend a roller hockey tournament.

“It definitely dilutes it, them not being there,” Kilgore said.

Stephen Catanese is a freelance writer.

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