The Jersey City Capitals’ youth hockey program has been one of New Jersey’s little-known gems, located nicely in the rink inside Pershing Field, named after Charlie Heger, the founding father of the Capitals almost four decades ago.
Don’t get any ideas about feeling sorry for Heger. We know that ball fields and ice rinks get named after people after they’ve passed on. Charlie is alive and well and still making a nuisance of himself with the coaches in the Capitals program.
But there is such a thing as youth hockey in Jersey City because of Charlie Heger.
The Capitals provided a safe haven for area youngsters to get involved in ice hockey. Many of the Capitals’ top players have moved on to perform on the high school level at schools like St. Peter’s Prep and Bayonne and Hudson Catholic, when the school had a hockey program like no other, being crowned as the No. 1 team overall in the state in 2000.
And over the years, there was a sprinkling of girls in their program. Maybe a girl broke the gender barrier one year. Another year, there might have been two girls.
But this year, the powers-that-be in the Capitals program noticed an upswing of girls who were willing to make the commitment and sacrifice to play ice hockey.
“We’ve noticed in the past three years through the Learn to Skate, Learn to Play Hockey drive that we had girls that kept showing up,” said Mike Mariniello, one of the coaches in the program and the younger brother of Nick Mariniello, the head boys’ basketball coach and athletic director at Hudson Catholic. “More and more, girls came up and wanted to play.”
This year, the number of girls playing hockey in the Capitals program is staggering. There are now 15 girls who are there regularly to play with and against the boys in the Capitals program.
“As our numbers have gotten better, we have been able to put together a girls’ team,” Mariniello said. “Since January, we’ve been trying to piece together a girls’ team.”
Sure enough, the Capital girls’ team was born this year. They have been practicing together twice a week to get a chance to play a game, facing the New Jersey Colonials, a program based in Union under the guidance of former Jersey City resident and Hudson Catholic superstar Dave Barbossa. Barbossa graduated from Hudson Catholic in 1987 and is still the No. 8 all-time leading scorer in New Jersey state history.
And that game is slated to be played Saturday, April 3 at Montclair State University. It was originally scheduled for last week, but the warm weather last week turned the Heger Ice Rink into slush, so the game was postponed.
It looked as if the game might not be played at all because of the warm weather, but the Floyd Hall Arena at Montclair became available for the girls to play.
“I think it’s a thrill that we’re able to do this,” said Mariniello, who coaches the team. “When I get the girls on the ice and ask them to do something, they do it. I think this is giving them something that is their own. I think having a girls’ team to compete is a great thing for the Jersey City Capitals.”
Never mind just the Capitals. Having an all-girls team representing Hudson County in ice hockey is historic. This isn’t a coed contest. The boys can stay off the ice for once. This is all for the females. And it’s a wonderful thing.
Just ask the historic players on the Capitals.
“I started playing hockey when I was six,” said Abby McLaughlin, a 10-year-old fourth grader at Hoboken’s Charter School. “I saw a game on TV and it looked fun and interesting. And I thought I could play it. I only had been skating one time before that game.”
So when young Abby had her first chance to skate, she was a little hesitant at first.
“I was very scared the first time I got on the ice,” McLaughlin said. “But I wanted to play.”
Abby encouraged her father, Doug, to take her to Pershing Field. She participated in the Learn to Skate, Learn to Play program, but noticed only a handful of girls.
“I knew it was going to be hard, but I also knew it was going to be fun,” McLaughlin said. “I was pretty good. I worked hard.”
McLaughlin was placed on a team with all boys.
“I remember it was very aggressive,” McLaughlin said. “I knew it was going to be about making the commitment to play. My coach [Mike Johnson] was very helpful to me learning to play.”
Kate Mariniello, Mike’s 10-year-old daughter, also liked playing hockey right away. Kate is a 10-year-old fourth grader who attends Wallace School in Hoboken. She also plays lacrosse, soccer and of course basketball. Uncle Nick wouldn’t have it any other way.
“But I like playing hockey a lot,” Kate Mariniello said. “I’m more of a passer, but I’m working on my shooting.”
When both McLaughlin and Mariniello found out that they were going to be part of an all-girls team playing another all-girls squad, they couldn’t believe it.
“I was so excited when my Dad said there would be an all-girls game,” McLaughlin said. “I was a little nervous when I first got to practice. I wasn’t used to seeing so many ponytails on the ice. It was weird. I was saying, ‘Where are all the boys?’”
The boys weren’t there. It was all for Abby.
“I kind of liked it,” said McLaughlin, a right winger – that has nothing to do with politics. It’s Abby’s position on the ice.
“That’s where I’m best at,” McLaughlin said. “I’m really excited about this game.”
“It’s pretty different being out there with all girls,” Mariniello said. “I feel like I can skate more. I get to take more shots on goal.”
But in this game, Mariniello will be playing defense. Because she’s one of the better players, she will defer to the others and play defense where she’s needed.
“It makes me more versatile as a player,” Mariniello said.
Abby McLaughlin is hopeful that the game becomes an annual occurrence.
“I really hope there will be another all girls game,” McLaughlin said. “I’m really excited about it.”
“I didn’t think we’d have this game,” Mariniello said. “But I’m excited for it. I’m glad we’re having it.”
“It’s their own,” Mike Mariniello said. “It’s their game.”
As well they should enjoy it. These girls well deserve this opportunity and who knows where it all may lead to. Maybe two all-girls teams. Maybe a league. It has to start somewhere. Bravo to these pioneers.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely Hoboken football great Tyrell Dortch, who went on to play at Michigan State and is now a Hoboken firefighter.