There’s something about the cold air of a hockey rink in January or February that is a make or break for young skaters and families in the Dorchester Youth Hockey (DYH) Learn to Skate program, a point when cold feet and hands don’t seem as fun as a warm living room or a temperature-controlled basketball gym.
The Learn to Skate program for DYH starts up once again next week (Sat., Nov. 13), and it already has sold out due to the high-quality, easy-going class.
As potential new hockey parents and their 3- and 4-year-old boys and girls are initiated into the unique Boston hockey culture with DYH’s Learn to Skate, they are brought into the fold by members of the legendary O’Sullivan hockey family – particularly Shaun, Stephanie, and Peter. The three volunteers said it’s their job to make a family’s first contact with hockey fun and exciting so kids will want to come back each weekend.
“It’s the introduction to the hockey culture,” said Shaun, who is the vice president of DYH and a former DYH player who has had three kids in the program at one time or another. “We want to build a hockey culture down here at the rink that the families and kids buy into…It’s easy in January and February to stay home and go to a birthday party.”
Added Stephanie, who was the first girl to play for DYH and is a Mass Hockey Hall of Famer, “The Learn to Skate is always sold out year after year. It’s great because you want to see the new families come in the door and get excited about skating and hockey. It’s how you build a successful program…For parents, it’s a family activity. Everyone has to be into it. Once the kids sign up, and they like it, it’s getting up in the cold of January and February.”
The Learn to Skate is a very popular option for beginning hockey players. No one can play hockey without first learning how to skate when they are young and making that first experience a good one is critical. Stephanie said they bring in coaches who are high school kids, college players, and adults, and who stress being positive at all times.
Peter said the three of them volunteer because they want the kids to have the same kind of experience they had as youngsters – a connection with hockey that opened many doors for them in life.
“This is where the dream starts for so many kids,” he said. “There are a lot of mornings, especially in January and February when it’s so cold that I don’t even want to come over here…But I always come over, and as soon as I breathe in the cold rink air, lace up the skates, and see the kids smiling and excited, I’m good. I’m ready to go and that’s part of giving back.”
Building back a Dot tradition
Mention the O’Sullivan family to anyone around Massachusetts associated with ice rinks, and immediately they will think two things – Dorchester and hockey.
The O’Sullivan family has 11 siblings and all were, or are, connected to hockey in some way. The family was headed by the late John and Ann O’Sullivan, who died of cancer two years apart in the 1990s when the oldest sibling, Shaun, was only 26. The O’Sullivans said they have fond memories of the times spent in their backyard – when a Dorchester hockey culture was taking shape and their family alone could provide three, hard-nosed lines of players.
Shaun and most of his siblings played for DYH at a time when the rink was outdoor and located on the current parking lot. He played at Thayer Academy and at Northeastern University, winning a Beanpot in 1984. Peter also played at DYH and then at UMass Boston. Chris was another brother who played DYH, then Catholic Memorial, and won a NCAA National Championship with Boston University. He also played in the NHL for the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Mark played for Thayer Academy and the University of Notre Dame, while David attended Thayer Academy and UMass Boston.
The neighborhood’s tradition certainly starts with the O’Sullivan family as the centerpiece, but it doesn’t at all end there. Shaun pointed out that their home and all the streets around it were flooded with kids playing hockey and sports.
“We used to play all day in the backyard and everyone in the neighborhood would come over,” he said. “We wore down the grass and I think we contributed to my dad’s decision to pave the backyard. College coaches used to love coming to Dorchester to recruit kids because every street they turned down, they would have to wait while kids moved street hockey nets so the car could pass by.”
He lists names like Mark Dennehy, Kevin Concannon, the Hayes brothers, Brendan Walsh, and Ryan Driscoll – all successful hockey players from the past who started in Dorchester and went on to great things.
“You had outstanding players for high school teams, college teams, and pro teams,” said Peter. “It was all started down here with the foundations, with competition and building confidence. There were so many to look up to. Those leaders and coaches here before us gave us the beliefs they had, and we carried that with us and now we are paying it forward to the next generation.”
That said, no story would be complete without mentioning Stephanie, who was the first girl to play DYH – playing with boys exclusively – and being a trailblazer for a girls’ program at DYH that this year has three age groups represented for the first time – U10, U12, and U14.
“I was always at the rink when it was open,” she said. “I watched my brothers around the rink, and I wanted to get out and do that, too.”
Being close in age to his sister, Peter noted that she played on the same baseball teams and hockey teams with him, and was routinely the best on the team. Shaun mentioned she often had to hide the fact she was a girl playing in a boys’ league. Playing for Matignon High School on the junior varsity boys’ team, she won a scholarship to Providence College, where she is now a Hall of Famer, and then went on the play for the USA National Team. She is now a Boston Police officer, and a pioneer on that team as well.
“She clung to her dream and had unbelievable fire,” said Shaun. “She wasn’t celebrated at all. She had to cut her hair, or tuck her hair in. The jersey would say ‘Stephen’ and not ‘Stephanie,’ but everyone would know with a wink and a nod that was John and Ann O’Sullivan’s daughter.”
Giving back to their neighborhood
DYH now boasts more than 200 participants, with a full boys’ and girls’ program, and the wait-listed Learn to Skate program.
The O’Sullivans operate a skills development practice every Wednesday, and that falls in line with team practices on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday – and games typically on Saturday and Sunday.
“Hockey has given us so much more than goals and assists,” said Peter. “It’s given us a chance to do something together that we love. It’s a great outlet and teaches you to fight through adversity. It’s a microcosm of life.”
Added Stephanie, “September hits and we know it’s another season and we’re hooked in for the next eight months, seven days a week,” she said. “The puck drops Labor Day weekend and goes through April. There’s no other sport like that.”
What keeps them going is walking through the doors of the rink and knowing what came before them – their parents and the coaches in the 1970s and 1980s and the hockey community that helped them in their lives and their careers. “Paying it forward” is a phrase that the siblings seemingly invented and use quite often.
Shaun said that’s the energy people feel when they get their first taste of hockey at the Learn to Skate program.
“We hope they will come to Learn to Skate and enjoy it every week,” said Shaun. “If they do, we know and hope they’ll play and coach hockey for the next 40 years like us.”
“And take over for us when we get too old,” bantered back Peter, as all three laughed.