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Sonoma youth gravitate toward hockey

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When it comes to organized youth sports in the Sonoma Valley, soccer, baseball and football reign supreme with lacrosse slowly making headway into the mainstream.

But for some local youth, none of these sports hold the intrigue and excitement that ice hockey does.

While ice hockey is a staple in Canada, Middle America and on the East Coast, there are limited opportunities for ice hockey here in Northern California.

Sonoma resident Brady Curotto, 14, and Kenwood resident Kevin Paul-Merritt, 10, play hockey for the Santa Rosa Flyers, who practice at Santa Rosa’s venerable Snoopy’s Home Ice while Sonoma resident Garrett Graham, 13, plays in Vacaville as a goalie for the Vacaville Jets.

When asked how they became interested in such a unique sport, the overlying answer from the kids is that they simply had exposure to it – and were hooked.

“I had a friend who would come over and always watch hockey on TV,” said Garrett’s mother, Ramona Rollins. From there, Garrett started emulating the hockey players he saw on television and, after taking him to a San Jose Sharks game, the rest was history.

“We went down to the glass before the match,” said Rollins, “and Garrett saw a goalie skate by and that was it. He had on all these pads and equipment and looked like a stormtrooper or something. Garrett said ‘I want to do that.’”

Kevin Paul-Merritt came to the sport a bit differently. His mom, Bridget Paul, a teacher at Altimira Middle School, is a skilled and successful downhill ski racer and an avid fan of winter sports. On rainy days, Paul would take Kevin to Snoopy’s Home Ice so she could skate – and he soon became a skilled ice skater as well.

Kevin, who is on the Pee-Wee Santa Rosa Flyers team where he plays left wing and defender, attended an event where kids are allowed to try hockey for free. In an almost cliché turn of hockey events, Kevin suffered a cut to the head.

“I could see the blood through his beanie,” Paul laughs. “But by the time we got him some ice, there were hockey forms in front of him. They had blood on them and we signed up.”

Brady Curotto, a former goalie who now plays forward for the under-14 Bantam Division Santa Rosa Flyers team, also came to love hockey after getting to play during a trip to Tahoe with his family. His father John Curotto says, “About four or five years ago, we were up in Lake Tahoe and we saw this older man on the ice playing hockey. He asked if Brady wanted to play and he just went full speed with it from there.”

Curotto adds: “Brady played soccer, football and baseball and he was great at all of them but nothing’s held his interest like hockey.”

With so few ice skating facilities in the area, practice and travel schedules can be challenging. But a theme between all the families is the true sense of connection and dedication they all feel toward their team, teammates and their families. John Curotto notes, “It’s definitely a family commitment.”

With travel to places like Fresno, San Jose and throughout the East Bay, the practice schedule often sees skaters on the ice by 5:15 a.m. Curotto says, “We’re all in. My two daughters, Annabella, 12, and Lucy, 9, and my wife, we go to practices, travel to the games. There’s kids coming in from Petaluma, Novato and San Rafael.”

Anne Woida, president of the Santa Rosa Flyers, agrees.

“Northern California hockey requires discipline, dedication and drive. Ice is not readily available, maybe that‘s what makes those of us involved even more passionate.” She continues, “We share every minute and sliver of ice we can scrounge up. We spend all our holidays together, we share gear, homes, vehicles and parenting duties.”

Adds Woida: “We are bonded by both and our extreme commitment to each other as supporters of our skaters’ dreams.”

Rollins shares that once her son Garrett broke a blade on his ice skates and that certain type of blade, one used for goalie skates, would take up to two weeks to get delivered. Luckily, the positive relationship she shares with the Curotto family paid off. “Brady had been a goalie so he still had the skates. We were so lucky because we were able to borrow the blade from them and not miss a game.”

With such deep commitment from parents, it ultimately falls on the boys to do the work. When asked about what he loves about hockey, Garrett Graham says, “It’s unique, not everyone does it. I love to play and one of the best things about it is the bond I have with my teammates.” Kevin Paul-Merritt echoes that sentiment. “I like it because of all the different opportunities and fun. I like the traveling and meeting new people. And, it’s fast.”

Brady Curotto says: “When I tell people I play hockey, it raises eyebrows. It’s kind of alien. But I didn’t know I had a talent for it until I tried it. A lot of kids in Sonoma play baseball and don’t try new things.”

Children ages 4 to 16 who might be interested in trying hockey can do so for free on Saturday, Nov. 10 from 9 to 10 a.m. at Snoopy’s Home Ice in Santa Rosa.