After long hiatus, hockey returns to Highlands
As the steady presence of players on the outdoor concrete rink near Dreshar Stadium suggests, there's a healthy hockey culture taking shape in Highlands School District.
Soon those kids will be able to lace up ice skates and call themselves Golden Rams.
For the first time since 1999, Highlands will have a hockey program. It will join the PIHL for the 2013-14 season, and though details such as what division it will join and how many players will be on the roster remain undetermined, the program has the foundational pieces in place.
“There were a lot of things that came into alignment for this to happen,” said Rick Lawes, who will be the team's coach. “You're starting a program more or less from scratch, and that's kind of neat. That's not something that comes along too often.”
Count Lawes' involvement among the fortuitous aspects of Highlands' formation. A Vermont native who arrived in Pittsburgh about six years ago, he settled down in Shadyside and, as a hockey enthusiast and lifelong player, began to look for adult leagues. Through adult hockey, he connected with Shawn Wislie, a 1994 Highlands graduate.
Wislie and Lawes played hockey at the Pittsburgh Ice Arena, formerly known as the Valley Sports Complex, for several years. They also began to hold instruction sessions for young players and briefly served as coaches in the Pittsburgh Vipers' in-house program.
Through those roles, they met Theresa Hetler and her son, Noah.
Noah Hetler, a hockey player since third grade, was one of several Highlands area players in search of more opportunities. He joined the Vipers organization. He belonged to Burrell's freshman team the past three years.
As she wandered through the Harmarville Bladerunners in November, Theresa Hetler, the program's eventual president, noticed a flyer about starting new high school teams hanging on a bulletin board. The note advised her to get in touch with PIHL officials, who advised her on how to start the application process.
She reached out to other hockey parents and found them just as willing to make Highlands hockey a reality. She and treasurer Maria Scherer became a dynamic duo.
“The kids bond together, the parents bond together, and we just become one big happy family,” Hetler said. “Everyone just steps up to the plate. You don't have to ask.”
When the time came to find a coach, Hetler turned to Wislie.
Wislie belonged to Highlands' inaugural hockey team, which called Kittanning's Belmont Complex home. He still has the puck he used to score Highlands' inaugural goal during the 1990-91 season.
“The wife dug that out of the archives, and we had to brush the dirt off of it,” said Wislie, who has two sons and still lives in the district.
He agreed to help with Highlands' revival as an assistant. He wanted his friend, Lawes, a man who has attended the PIHL championships the past several years just for fun, to spearhead the effort.
“He loves this level,” Wislie said. “It's right up his alley.”
For now, Highlands' roster barely meets the PIHL-required minimum of 12 players, so the Golden Rams could join the league as a “pure” team, meaning that it would use players strictly from its district. Hetler said she and her cohorts are still considering the possibility of Highlands operating as an Open Class program, which would allow the team to use players from other nearby schools.
There's talk of freshman and developmental youth teams, too, Hetler said.
Highlands completed its first on-ice competition June 1, as the current players clashed with Golden Rams alumni; the alums won, 5-3.
Hetler, whose son will be a sophomore in the fall, has no intention of seeing Highlands stay in the Open Class for long. Nor does she anticipate another short-lived existence for the program.
“I feel 100 percent confident that Highlands hockey will continue on,” she said. “There are a lot of boys playing in middle school, and they're eager — they cannot wait to play high school hockey.”