NORTH ADAMS, Mass — Justin Kruszyna began skating again after 16 years off the ice when his two young sons first started playing hockey two years ago. So it was only fitting that sons Tyler and Bradley were there on Saturday afternoon to watch their dad play with the rest of the Northern Berkshire Youth Hockey League Alumni against the Boston Bruins Alumni.
The Kruszyna family is just one example of all the magic that was created at Peter W. Foote Vietnam Veterans Memorial Skating Rink on Saturday, as a packed house enjoyed a friendly battle between their local hockey heroes and notorious members of the Boston Bruins Alumni. Things were close at the break, before the Bruins turned it on and pulled away for a 9-4 victory.
This was no ordinary game, but a much larger celebration event. The NBYHL is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and the Bruins Alumni its 51st year of existence. Pre-game festivities honored and recognized so many of the legends that helped keep the league alive and growing, and all the children in attendance helped embody the spirit of the event with their excitement as they all lined the outside of the glass trying to get as close to the action as possible.
"To have them see something like this and their eyes light up, that is everything. It is awesome," Kruszyna said. "It was a blast and I am just glad that my kids got to see me play. I took about 16 years off after high school, and joined the Army. So to be a veteran and play at the Veterans Memorial Rink and put something like this on is just wonderful. My dad last saw me play when I was a senior in high school and he got to see me play today."
There are a lot of people that deserve recognition in helping to make Saturday possible, but none more than the Bruins stars themselves. The players dazzled on the ice in reliving the glory days and showcasing skills that never go away, and they received all the attention they garnered like royalty, signing autographs and posing for pictures with everyone before and after the game, as well as during the halftime intermission.
"We love to come to Western Mass, and it was nice to come out and see the best attendance at one of our games that we've had in a long time. To have a full rink is just awesome and we really appreciate it," said Rick Middleton, a 12-year Bruins veteran and longtime member of the Bruins Alumni Team. "We like to go all over and we don't get out to Western Mass all that often, so it was great. We do about 30 games a year all over New England and we also go up into Canada, and we are also hoping to do games in Florida. But being here tonight was special."
The NBYHL squad was coached by Guy Cariddi, whose roots go back to the earliest days of youth hockey at the rink back in 1970. Coach Cariddi has been instrumental in keeping hockey alive in the local community, and Saturday was a special chance for him to catch up with all the faces he has come to know over the decades at the rink.
"This celebrates 50 years for youth hockey," Cariddi said. "It seems like just yesterday, and I started when I was 7 years old and I was the youngest kid. We started out with 13 of us playing youth hockey here and we literally had wrestling helmets and some of us had National Geographics strapped to us as padding. A lot of us had figure skates on, but we had a good time. Here we are 50 years later and I'm coaching my fifth generation of kids."
Cariddi has memories with nearly every face that walked through the door on Saturday. From all his former players to his supportive family and even to having his own former coach, Bob Waltermire, it was almost like a giant family gathering. There was even an alumni that came for the first time in over 40 years to surprise Cariddi and enjoy the experience.
"The biggest secret that the kids do not know over all these years is that I have had more fun than they have," Cariddi said. "All of our team were coaches and former players, and all the coaches were actually players, and they all are Northern Berkshire Alumni. Just to skate on the ice with that caliber of hockey player is phenomenal for them. Our team did a fabulous job. There are not a lot of teams that can go out there against them and put up a respectable score. They did a good job."
The Bruins have been active partners with the NBYHL for the past few years, providing a large portion of the funding to help get kids on the ice. All the many efforts toward Saturday's event were recognized, right down to honoring those pioneers who helped put the ice down to begin with.
The late Clifford "Kip" Syrett was honored prior to the action, with his wife, Carol, accepting a bouquet of flowers in his honor. Carol saw the rink from the very beginning; she later went on to run the girls' teams and had to learn how to skate in order to do that, and she has seen everything that has come through here.
"My husband took me to the skating rink, or where the skating rink was going to be," Syrett recalled. "There were holes in the ground and that was about it. But he was standing around saying that was where the Zamboni would go, here is the men's bathroom, there is the lobby and there is the skating rink. He saw the whole thing. My husband was a fantastic man. Hockey and the kids were all of his life, really."
Kip Syrett certainly would have rejoiced in seeing how excited and inspired all of the children were for Saturday's showcase. The rink was packed full of families, children bouncing off the walls and erupting with elation.
That enthusiasm was elevated to its maximum as the game prepared to begin, thanks in part to a passionate opening speech delivered by North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard. The mayor held a moment of silence in honor of Sgt. Peter Wellesley Foote, the city's only Vietnam War casualty, before welcoming the Bruins and cheering on the audience for helping to support what a special moment that had come to North Adams.
The game provided all one could ask for. The Bruins jumped to a big lead early, before Northern Berkshire answered back to make it a tight contest at the midway break. The Bruins then pulled away to victory in the second half.
"It was a blast," said NBYHL's Gary Munson. "I'm a huge Bruins fan and I loved being out on the ice with some of these guys who are famous for what they did. You could tell that they took it easy on us a little bit, but we had a good time putting the team together and we worked really, really hard on it. It was great to have a full house and it was a lifelong dream to go out there and be on that ice. To be out there and have fun with those guys was just a blast."
The Bruins got on the scoreboard right away with a goal in the opening minute from Andrew Raycroft. Glenn Featherstone added his first score with 15:03 left in the opening half, and Bruce Shoebottom made it a 3-0 lead with a goal at 10:42.
With around six minutes left in the first, Northern Berkshire rallied back. Alan Girgenti found the net off a pass from Tony Moore to put NBYHL on the scoreboard, and a few minutes later Connor Vasquez flew in and fired a shot past the keeper to make it a 3-2 game.
"It was like a bunch of monkeys trying to hump a football out there. There were a bunch of guys cycloning around us making us look silly, but it was a lot of fun," Tony Moore said. "Half the game they took it easy on us and let us skate it up the ice, and it was great for the league."
In the second half the Bruins flexed their might.
"We don't play to lose. We are not the Harlem Globetrotters where it is set up in advance, but we win every game," Middleton said. "We lose a game maybe once every three years, but sometimes hockey is a funny game. But we don't try to run anybody out. We play the game for fun, but we don't play the game to lose. In the second period we turn it on, although sometimes we don't."
The Bruins scored very early into the second half, as Frank Simonetti found the net. Featherstone added his second goal and Steve Leach followed with another to increase it to a 6-2 advantage.
Northern Berkshire got another score to finally end the run. Matthew Rodowicz scored off an assist from Munson to make it 6-3 with just more than 10 minutes left to play.
It was Featherstone who answered again with a goal that earned him a hat trick.
"I can't believe the size of Featherstone; he's a giant!" Moore said. "I'm glad that they didn't hit me too hard out there."
Featherstone later added another score, and Dave Jensen also had a goal for the Bruins.
Gary Fuls tallied the final goal for Northern Berkshire.
The camaraderie continued even after the final buzzer, as players continued to sign autographs and spend time with the young fans. Moments like this do not come around very often, and it was a complete success. A young generation of hockey fans enjoyed the chance of a lifetime to witness some of the greatest to ever suit up for the Boston Bruins right there in their local rink.
"That is what this is about is for the young kids to see how hockey is played, and to have retired professionals help bring it back to North Adams is just great," Kruszyna said. "We are trying to build back up the program and hockey is a tough sport and not as popular, but we are really doing well. A lot is coming to North Adams."
The players on the NBYHL squad are also coaches and advocates for the game of hockey. In their days growing up there was more interest in the sport and more participation, but those days are starting to come back again.
"Hockey is a growing sport. Out of all the sports right now it is showing the most growth in the United States over the past five years or so," Moore said. "It is good to see, because there was a period where it wasn't growing. Now we are seeing all these kids skating and we need more initiatives paying for kids equipment and paying for their fees and getting kids out here, getting the kids that wouldn't normally be able to do this because it is a such a high-priced game. Get those kids that are natural athletes out here to play this game, because they are going to find that it is the most fun sport out of all of them. I have played a lot of them and this has always been my favorite."
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