First team laid foundation for Gators tradition
Forty years ago, a group of Gateway students began to pave the road – or smooth the ice – for today's Gators student-athletes to pick up a stick, put on a pair of skates and don a jersey emblazoned in black and gold.
That group will be celebrated, recognized and forever enshrined on the Gateway Hockey Alumni Honor Roll on Wednesday as part of Gateway Hockey's alumni winter event at Center Ice Arena in Delmont.
The inaugural Gateway hockey team will be the first team to be placed on the honor roll.
Don Schuetz, a member of that first team in the 1971-72 academic year and now a resident of Sugar Land, Texas, said it was an understatement to say the team had humble beginnings.
“It all pretty much emerged out of the Monroeville-Pitcairn sports rivalry that existed at that time,” he said. “I was asked to play for Pitcairn in a street hockey game against Monroeville and agreed to play even though I never before played street hockey. I immediately fell in love with the game, and a bunch of us started to play periodically.
“Then one day, I went ice skating at the old Alpine Ice Chalet in Swissvale, and after the session was over, a couple high school teams came out to warm up. I stayed and watched, and that hooked me in wanting to play on the ice. I went to school and started asking some guys if they were interested. Many thought I was crazy, but we had enough interest to try to get it going. It all pretty much happened by word of mouth that first year.”
Schuetz said the team practiced a little bit, and it consisted mostly of scrimmaging because team members didn't know any drills and wanted to just have fun playing the game.
He said the team's biggest breakthroughs came at open sessions.
“Our first scrimmage against another school was vs. Shaler during one of our 5 a.m. practices,” Schuetz said. “We lost, but by a respectable 3-0 score even though we had trouble even icing the puck. For most of us, we not only had to learn how to skate and play hockey, but we also had to learn the rules and strategies of the game all without embarrassing ourselves too much.”
Word slowly got out about the team, and it attracted students with previous hockey experience, including a number of players in the eighth and ninth grades.
The first official game was against rival Churchill, and it was played before a large crowd at the Ice Chalet. Churchill was a more experienced team and defeated Gateway, 7-3.
“The game ended, as many at that time did, in a brawl, which we had more or less promised to our fans as an inducement to attend,” Schuetz said. “I do not remember who our very first win was against, but it was definitely an upset. I do recall that our biggest win in those first couple of years was a 4-3 victory against Allderdice High School, who had won the high school hockey championship.”
Schuetz said some of the players in the original group became pretty good players on their own and actually played in college. Team member Jerry Bass now is an assistant hockey coach at the University of Pittsburgh.
The team was granted club status at Gateway, and it was not sanctioned or supported by the school.
“We were a sight for sore eyes,” Schuetz said. “We had to buy, make or borrow whatever we could for equipment. Some of us wore black football pants courtesy of Gateway's football coach — Pete Antimarino — as we didn't have hockey pants. I wore catcher's shin guards under my socks and spray painted a pair of leather work gloves black to serve as my hockey gloves.
“Our goalie, Larry Starkey, deserves special mention, as I recall his first “leg pads” consisted of foam cushions cut from an abandoned sofa and tied to his legs with rope. He had little talent in front of him and even less in the way of equipment, but he was a fantastic goalie.”
Support for Starkey, Schuetz said, came from the team's fearlessness on the ice.
“Youth and the concept of indestructibility seem to go hand in hand, and we hit everything that moved — if we could catch it,” he said. “We would readily fall in front of and block shots without regard for injury, even in the absence of shoulder and chest pads.”
Schuetz said Joe Zaccari and Fran Czmerda, the program's first coaches, deserve a lot of credit for getting the team off the ground.
“While both were great coaches, neither had ever played ice hockey,” Schuetz said.
“They were more ‘scholars of the game,' having watched and attended Penguins games. They were just two great guys who donated their time to this rag-tag bunch because they, too, loved the game of hockey. They more or less got us under control by teaching us the game.”
The program established in the 1971-72 school year developed into a state-championship contender only a few years later.
The 1975-76 team lost the state championship game, 4-3, in double overtime.
In addition to the 1972 team, four individuals — Jeff Friday (Class of 1993), Greg George (Class of 1985), Jim Owens (Class of 1982) and Del Kubeldis (Class of 1977) — will be honored.
George was a goaltender for the Gators from 1983 to 1985 and was selected a league all-star in 1985. After service in the Marine Corps, he coached defense and goaltenders in several local organizations from Gateway High School and the Allegheny Badgers to the Amateur Pens.
Owens was a captain during his time on the Gateway hockey team and, like George, he turned his talents for the game towards coaching. He also coached in the Gateway organization.
Playing in over-30 and over-40 leagues in Murrysville helps him stay healthy and active.
Friday, born and raised in Monroeville, currently is the manager of Carhops Subshop in Monroeville. He also helped establish the annual Gateway hockey alumni golf outing.
Kulbeldis played for Gateway for five years, starting in eighth grade. He was the starting goalie beginning with his sophomore season, and he played on the state runner-up team in 1976.
He was named the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League's Class AA Goalie of the Year for the 1975-76 season and was selected to the all-tournament team for the state championship series.
Alumni winter event
The ceremony for the Class of 2012 will be at 3 p.m., followed by the alumni skills competition at 3:30 and the annual Black-White Game at 4.
The Golden Gator Award ceremony will be at 5.
Admission is free.
For further information on the event, contact Steve Biancaniello at sbian firstname.lastname@example.org.
Del Kubeldis contributed to this report
Michael Love is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5825 or at email@example.com.