As hockey parents, we see our kids on the ice and think they’re great. Every once in a while, though, a kid comes along who really has the potential to be a great player — a proverbial diamond in the rough. The 2009-2010 Southern Illinois Ice Hawk’s Mite Silver team had the extraordinary good fortune to have a player like that. And they would never have had him if it weren’t for the keen eye of the rink manager, Gary Ricciardi.

 A Canadian from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Ricciardi had played in the minor leagues after college hockey – including a season with the Muskegon Fury where “Rico” played with “Bouch” – The Great Undrafted, Robin Bouchard.

After hanging up his professional hockey skates, Ricciardi got a job managing the US Ice Sports Complex in Fairview Heights, Illinois. In addition to maintaining the two-ice facility and managing the operations, Ricciardi and his wife, Beth, were charged with creating demand, making sure that as much ice time as possible was sold.

One of the ways they tried to raise interest was by getting the local elementary and high schools to send flyers home. That was one of Beth’s initiatives, armed with marketing and planning skills she’d developed with a variety of community relations jobs while Gary was busy playing hockey. At the end of the school year, the flyers offered all students as many passes to free skate or stick-and-puck sessions as the number of A’s on their final report card. In the heat of the summer, the two-ice complex was slimmed down to only one, and families often found the cool relief of the rink when temperatures outside soared.

Then, as the school year started, the flyers offered inexpensive learn-to-skate lessons, held throughout the fall, which were followed by learn-to-play hockey lessons starting right after the Christmas break. The lessons were structured this way so that incoming skaters, who took the lessons and learned to skate and then play hockey, would be ready to tryout for a team the following fall, feeding the teams organized by US Ice’s biggest customer, the Southern Illinois Ice Hawks.

Ricciardi taught both sets of lessons, sometimes soliciting the help of Ice Hawks volunteers – teenagers and parents with skating and hockey experience, all with mandatory USA Hockey coaching or officiating cards.

The Diamond in the Rough

It’s ironic that diamonds, one of the most sought-after gems, begin their lives as unattractive stones. It takes a practiced, experienced eye to see the potential a rough stone may have. There are lots of rough stones, both small and large, that aren’t worth a cutter’s time, with too many flaws or inclusions preventing them from being transformed into something precious. The same can be said about hockey players: it’s sometimes hard to see the potential for greatness from amongst the many.

Not so for Gary Ricciardi.

Ricciardi had the right kind of eye. He’d put hundreds of kids through the learn to skate drills, using chair-like props to give them the confidence they needed to stand upright on their skates, unassisted. He showed them how to turn without falling. Got them to stop, and start again. And his expertise didn’t end with the skating programs at US Ice, either. During his summer vacation, he would high-tail it back to Canada where he helped his brother Jeff run Core Hockey,  a hockey school featuring training camps designed to bring players to a higher level of performance. So he knew what to look for, if a rough stone ever crossed his path.

And one did.

The Scott Air Force Base was located just 12 miles up the road from the rink. The transitional nature of the military meant that each fall, a new crop of families were relocated into the community, usually staying put for three years. Their school-aged children received the flyer sent out from US Ice, advertising skating lessons. This particular boy received one of them. He’d never even been on ice before but he begged his mother to let him try. She did.

Before his learn-to-skate lessons were over, Ricciardi came to see the Mite Silver’s coaches. He knew a decision would be needed fast. Although the team had been constructed during tryouts a couple of months before, the Club was able to move players around up to the declaration deadline which was a few days away. The team had only 11 players, after all, there should be room for one more.

Ricciardi told them he had a boy who’d been in learn-to-skate, but the kid was ready to play. He said he was a natural. He just needed to be taught the game. Would they be willing to do that?

Ricciardi explained it wasn’t this boy’s first exposure to team sports, either. He’d been the quarterback on a football team out in he Southwestern state his father had last been stationed. He was a good quarterback and took his job seriously: just like the professional quarterbacks in the NFL, he put the plays on a band he wore around his wrist, referring to it after getting the play calls from his coach on the sideline. The Ice Hawks’ coaches shook their heads and smiled. That was pretty impressive for a 9-year-old.

The coaches agreed and days later, the team roster was declared and, as it turned out, the number of players on the team stayed at eleven. A relocation of one of the Mite Silver families after Christmas meant the configuration of the team stayed intact: one goalie, two sets of defenders, two sets of attackers.

When it came to hockey, the new kid was a quick study, and so much more. He had an innate understanding of the game. He was a fast and clever on his feet. Stick-handling was second nature. Believe it or not, he could even snipe: the kid could top net. And, better yet, he was kind. He liked to share, and instinctually knew what it took for a team to gel, to act as one, to work together and succeed.

After joining mid-season, the Ice Hawks Mite Silver team never lost another game. The new kid racked up the goals, becoming the league’s scoring leader. But our coaches refused to let him, or the team, become a one-man show. They taught — and talked — about the importance of angles, about how you needed to use your imagination to see where the puck would be after it hit the boards at a particular angle. Of what head’s up hockey meant. What tape-to-tape passes looked — and felt — like. They helped him further develop his already developing hockey sense.

Although he played at center, as soon as the Ice Hawks were up a few goals, the offensive coach would tell him it was time to let his team mates score, and they did, with passes he made that always found their sticks. The coaches would also swap out positions, putting a defender on the offensive line and putting the new kid on defence, where he had a knack for shutting down the opponents’ attackers.

Everyone on the team, including the goalie, had at least a goal or an assist by the time the season was over. The team had pride, which beamed from the players each time they stepped on the ice. As for the new kid, well, he didn’t just get better as the season progressed. As he improved, so did each and every player on the team. They played — for the first time ever — hockey as it should be played. They felt — for the first time ever — what it was like to be a player.

The Ice Hawk’s Mite Silver team won the Missouri State Championship that year. The championship banner, listing all the player’s names, was hung from the rafters of Rink “A” at US Ice. It was still there two years later — the last time the Ice Hawks ever skated at that facility — when the rink started suddenly sinking into the ground below. The US Ice Sports Complex, a victim of mine subsidence, never reopened. Gary Ricciardi eventually returned to Thunder Bay, where he helps run Core Hockey and its expanding choice of hockey workshops.

After the Mite Silver’s win, everything changed, as hockey does. The older players moved up to become first year Squirts, the younger players stayed as second year Mites. Soon, the new kid was no longer an Ice Hawk, having been snagged by a AA team and then an AAA team in St. Louis. Two years later, with his father now stationed in Oklahoma, the rest of the family moved close to Chicago, where there were relatives nearby to help support the time commitment needed for him to play AAA hockey, where he is today.

As for the rest of the players from that team, most are still playing hockey. Some moved up to higher levels, some stayed at the same calibre of play. One, because of injury, stopped playing altogether: hockey can take its toll, even on youngsters.

However, the memories of winning — and being on that Mite Silver team — will stay with each of them forever. They will remember the thrill of winning game after game and the friends they made on the ice and in the locker room. But most of all, they’ll remember how amazing that one special player was, how exciting it was to play with him and knowing what it felt like to be a hockey player on a team. All because Gary Ricciardi had the ability to see the potential in that diamond in the rough, and the two parent coaches, Art Stutsman and Guy Landry, who guided him that first season as he learned to become the player within.