To most, the only connection that Lawrence has with hockey at a greater public level is being the home of the Valley Forum. However, in days gone by, there was no town in Essex County that had the same amount of hockey culture. Surprising at may be, L-Town was actually quicker to the punch in becoming involved in youth hockey than Methuen was. In the early 1970’s, the venerable Frost Arena was the home to the New England Junior A League, which included teams such as the Methuen Flyers and the Salem Stars 1 & 2. My father, Jay Atkinson, served as half of the goaltender tandem at age 13 (quite impressive considering some of his teammates and opponents were as old as 19 and some originating from Canada), alongside the late, great Mike Lebel – a colorful figure in Methuen hockey for many years. Lawrence High School and Greater Lawrence Vocational Tech had varsity teams who were more than capable of holding their own against the juggernauts of the Merrimack Valley (including Methuen High, Central Catholic, Tewksbury, Andover, Billerica, etc.) In the 1980’s, shrinking athletic funding, increased ice costs, and changing population effectively erased the game from existence in Lawtown while its neighbors prospered.
The Lawrence Floor Hockey League, created by mi padre and coached by myself alongside several of my longtime team mates and adult volunteers, is an extension of the Methuen Fun Hockey League (which has offered affordable recreational athletics for 11 years) and step one towards resurrecting the sport at affordable levels for the children of L-Town. Funded by the Boston Bruins Foundation (who covered the costs for equipment), Lawrence Rotary Club, and the Exchange Club, the program serves as a prototype for the complete resurrection of the sport, which in several years down the road, should see the game returning to the ice at a greater, more public level. A lofty goal, resurrecting such a predominantly white sport for an urban setting that is nearly 90% Latino, but within strong likelihood according to current progress. Our program currently has 30 young players, ranging from ages 3 1/2 to 14, from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, who are encouraged to read 2 or more age appropriate books within the 8 week session period. This experience will prove to be extremely valuable in many ways for these youths living the hardened life. It’s become a tendency for me to quote #4 lately, but I believe that more words of wisdom from the wunderkind Bobby from Parry Sound, Ontario are called for here – “The biggest thing we get out of it is seeing the kids smile. And hopefully we will also see that the lessons we’re teaching – not only the fundamentals of hockey, but also the life values – are sinking in.”