When the Buffalo Public Schools started just the second High School Hockey League in New York State, the Queen City quickly responded. The Explorer League had almost every high school in the district participating, and those that did had no problem putting three lines out on the ice. That was 1972. Things changed a great deal in the city over the next 45 years and the league slowly started to crumble. Families moved out of the once proud neighborhoods of Buffalo and those kids who played in the Explorer League took their skates with them to the suburbs.
Most kids from the city who stayed played for private schools and the league continued to suffer. By the early 2000s only three Buffalo Public High School Club Hockey Teams were left. These teams (South Park, Hutch Tech, and City Honors) were forced to play schools on the other side of the county instead of just on the other side of town. Interest dwindled and even the kids who wanted to play had a difficult time putting together the funds necessary to participate. It's no secret that hockey isn't cheap.
Youth Hockey typically costs about $5,000 a season and the older you get the greater the cost. High school players and their families spend about $8,000 a season. The schools that stuck around needed to get creative. Club teams get little or no financial support from the schools they represent. So the surviving schools needed to find ways to stay afloat. City Honors teamed up with Cardinal O'Hara, a private school in Tonawanda, very early on and they continue to have a very strong partnership. Their program has enjoyed a great deal of success at the club level and have represented the area very well on Super Sunday.
However, it wasn't until 2015 that South Park and Hutch Tech combined forces and the Buffalo Explorers were born. The team and organization decided to take the name of the once proud Explorer League and wear the colors of the hometown Buffalo Sabres out on the ice. This season, the team added players from a few more Buffalo Public Schools, including Olmstead and Leonardo da Vinci. They also opened their try-outs to some of the local charter schools, including the Charter School for Applied Technology and the Maritime Charter School, both located in the City of Buffalo. Including South Park and Tech, there are now six schools that make up this unique team.
The Buffalo Explorers Franchise has 18 skaters this season and a few returning players from last year’s roster. However, the entire program is under new leadership. Meg Gifford, a Cazenovia Hockey legend, recently stepped up and took control of the program. When I arrived at Riverside rink to do this story, she was the first person I recognized. "Hello Mrs. Gifford." She slowly turned around, gave me a smile, and said, "You can call me Meg, Mr. Crowley." I had the pleasure of getting to know her in my early teaching days and to call her a leader is an understatement. We worked together on numerous committees and fundraisers at that time and she always worked hard to get the job done. She is a no nonsense "hockey mom" who knows how to relate to kids and parents alike. Once I learned that she was the manager of this organization, I knew the program was in good hands. As I made my way to the locker room, I could hear her speaking to a number of the new players and parents about the rules and expectations of the team. One things is very clear: when Meg talks, people listen.
Personality must have been a pre-requisite for new staff because both the manager and the coaching staff certainly have it. In fact, the new head coach, Jim "Jimbo" Creahan, has much more than most. Jim, like Meg, has dedicated a great deal of time to youth hockey while living in South Buffalo. Creahan is a "Big Picture" type of coach who recognizes the importance of developing something that is bigger than any one individual. "We are starting something special here. A team that welcomes kids from any walk of life," he said. This philosophy is something that is welcomed by his new team.
In fact, some of Creahan's old players called the new players and let them know just what to expect. Noah Kane, one of Creahan's old standouts, says, "What makes coach special and unique is that he is still young enough to connect with players, but has been around the game for a very long time. He has earned a lot of respect so it makes you feel comfortable playing for him. I think that is what helps his players excel." Kane is currently playing with the P.A.L. Junior Islanders and clearly has a great deal of confidence in his former coach. I am willing to bet all of his new players agree.
I spoke with team captain, Isaac Murray, and he is very excited about the upcoming season. "The culture changed as soon as coach took over. He made it clear that nothing is going to be given to us this season and that we need to earn everything we get," says Murray. Creahan's passion for hockey is something that he wears on his sleeve. Just a few months back he suffered a serious "lower body" injury when he was accidently taken out from behind during practice. The injury was supposed to put him on the shelf for months. Creahan told me, "I can't sit still, so I worked hard to get on my feet as quick as I could." Creahan is currently walking with a cane but is quick to point out that wearing a helmet at the time of the injury probably saved his life. He's tough. He's very old fashioned. He's very excited about the challenge this new position presents.
The new leader of the Explorers has done very well to surround himself with coaches who at one time or another played for him in the past. The staff demonstrated their closeness as I chatted with each of them in the locker room during my interview. They come from all over Western New York. Patrick Krebs, who played and grew up in Lockport, will work with the goalies. Jeff Szewczyk, a West Seneca West alum, will help out on defense. Creahan couldn't put together a staff without including a few guys from South Buffalo. Justin LaRusch, a Bishop Timon graduate who grew up three doors down from me, will show the forwards a thing or two this season. Creahan's main assistant coach will be Kevin Webster, one of his lifelong friends who has laced up the skates with him since their days at Cazenovia Ice Rink. I played ball with Kevin's brother growing up and had the opportunity to play for his father, as well. Mr. Webster was a great coach and I am certain his son Kevin will do a great job working alongside Creahan.
The entire staff brings a great deal to the table. They immediately demonstrated that they are all in for these kids and are all on the same page. Creahan said, "They get me. They get what we are trying to do here. There will be no surprises in here or when the puck drops." This sounds like a very good problem to have considering this first year staff and new team will be playing with nothing to lose.
The Explorers will be playing in the Southtowns Club league this season. That means that the team made up of six different schools in the city will travel all over Western New York. The 2017-18 schedule includes trips to Depew, Dunkirk, and even Olean. The team is looking forward to proving doubters wrong and a few local hockey experts think they will. Someone close to the situation told me that the team isn't supposed to be this good already. I'm looking forward to seeing if they are right.