Greenwich High School’s hockey program is growing under the leadership of Coach Chris Rurak, an avid hockey player and father of twin boys at CMS who share his passion.
Rurak came to coach the GHS hockey team in 2016-17. That year, 49 players signed up for try outs and 24 made varsity, 12 made JV.
His second year the number who tried out increased to 56 and 27 made Varsity; 13 made JV.
This year 60 players signed up for tryouts and 31 played on varsity and 19 on JV.
“The more numbers we have, the stronger the varsity team is,” Rurak said. “We’ve only had one state championship and it was 26 years ago. Hopefully we’ll have another. We’ve come very close.”
Rurak said his message is simple. “Not every kid can play Varsity, but just because they can’t play Varsity doesn’t mean they love the sport any less.”
“We are creating a new culture at Greenwich High School,” he said, adding that outside public school there is money involved and “pay to play” comes with certain expectations.
At GHS Rurak has modeled hockey off a Division 1 college experience. “We take it very seriously. It’s merit based and run professionally.”
He said there is only a tiny chance a high school player will play at a Division 1 level.
“But 100% of our kids are here right now, so why can’t we give them a D1 experience at the high school level,” he asked, adding that that message has taken off.
“I view it as my civic duty as a high school coach that if a kid wants to play hockey, we should find a way for them to play,” Coach Rurak said.
Toward that end, he talks to each player after tryouts to try to make sure he has somewhere to play.
“We’re trying to cater to all kids. I’m not partial to any one. I care about them all equally and all the programs equally,” Rurak said.
Rurak said the JV team was previously limited to scrimmages against other JV teams. “There was no structure,” he said. “It was just entertainment based.”
Then Rurak reached out to 6 FCIAC teams last year and started a JV league including Greenwich, Darien, Fairfield Ludlow, New Canaan, Ridgefield and St. Joe’s.
“We piloted the six-team league last year. We didn’t know if it was going to take off or fit into the schedule,” he recalled. “All the coaches said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ It ended up being a huge success.”
Building on that success, last year the JV league went to 12 teams.
“We always think bigger and better so we opened it up, adding Immaculate High School, Norwalk’s Brien McMahon, Notre Dame West Haven, Westport’s Staples, Trumbull and Fairfield Prep.”
“Every team will play each other once. Then we’ll have finals and it’ll be awesome,” Rurak said, adding the finals will probably be at the Danbury Ice Arena, which is NHL regulation size, unlike Hamill Rink which is 15 feet deficient.
There is even a dedicated JV website.
In addition to changing the culture of GHS’s hockey program and opening it up to more players, Rurak said there are other big moves.
Playing in the Off Season
The hockey season runs December to March, and Rurak wanted his players to have opportunities to play in the off season. That would ultimately help them work toward the goal of winning a state championship.
“All the kids wanted to play together,” he recalled. “Kids used to head off to Darien, Westchester, Stamford or to the Junior Rangers U18 programs. All my kids were fractured into other programs who were doing this for their own high school teams.”
So last year he worked out an arrangement with the Whalers so all the kids could play up in Norwalk.
That, however meant driving up I95 on Fridays at 6pm. “They did a great job, but location wise it was tough.”
“So what I did was approach the Greenwich Blues and asked if they’d be interested in having a U18 team,” Rurak explained. “They said yes because there isn’t one.”
“Keith Orrico, president of Greenwich Blues, said, ‘What if we just rebrand the whole program Greenwich Cardinals Youth Hockey Association?'”
The Blues became the Greenwich Cardinals Youth Hockey Association (GCYHA) which many shorten simply to Junior Cardinals.
That did the trick. “They more than doubled their numbers just on rebranding their program.”
“All I was looking for was a place for my players to play in the half season,” Rurak said.
Rurak said the Greenwich Skating Club, with its unique outdoor rink, is another primary feeder to the GHS program.
The Greenwich Skating Club hosts the annual “Winter Classic” in December between rivals Greenwich and Darien. The game starts at 4:00pm in daylight and ends at night with the lights coming on half way through.
“There’s only so many seats available, and they go within 10 minutes. It’s the only outdoor game there is,” Rurak said. “Rob Burnett is the announcer. It’s one game and for a trophy, and it’s awesome.”
Because Winter Classic has been such a popular tradition, and because Rurak is constantly seeking ways to improve the high school experience, this year the team is going to play two Rhode Island Teams – Bishop Hendricken and LaSalle Academy – at Providence College in February.
“Darien is coming with us as a travel partner and staying overnight just like a D1 hockey schedule at a D1 rink,” Rurak said, adding that Greenwich’s closest rink and rival is Darien. “We’ll play one on Saturday and then flip and play one on Sunday.”
“The rivalry enhances the playing experience and creates the atmosphere we’re looking for,” he explained.
“There is a certain atmosphere with high school sports you can’t get anywhere else. It’s unique because it’s community based and includes your friends, your family and your parents’ friends. This is your home. It’s intimate.”
“That’s why they always say high school sports are the time of your life,” Rurak said. “We’re trying to make the experience the best and most fun as it can be.”
Another idea of Rurak’s was to create a “hockey prom” with the girls and boys teams mixing it up for coed teams with at least two girls on the ice at all times. “It’s just a fun event,” Rurak said.
“The first year they were a little tentative,” he recalled. “But this year one of the girls said, ‘Coach, that was the most fun I had all year.”
“The boys are saying, ‘Wow those girls are really good.’ There’s a mutual respect,” Rurak said.
“We also get the little kids to skate in warm ups,” Rurak said, adding that the goal is to continue to build community support and a pipeline of enthusiastic players for the high school program.
Local Live – Live Streamed and On Demand Games
Toward that end, the addition of Local Live for live streamed and on demand TV coverage of games has been well received. “We even produced commercials for the Cos Cobber and Garden Catering,” Rurak said.
“When these kids are 50 they can get together and watch a game,” Rurak said. “I got nothing – just some newspaper clippings.”
Two years ago a Booster Club for GHS hockey was formed. Rurak said there is a Treasurer so he never has to touch the money.
The Booster Club includes parents of the four captains and, for every captain’s parent there is an underclassman’s parent. “That way everyone gets a say on how the money raised benefits the entire program, the whole team,” Rurak explained.
The quick growth in the program also presents challenges, ice time being paramount.
“Ice time is limited and budget is limited,” he said, adding that with 50 players he’s been trying to increase ice time for the team. “But it’s it’s expensive and hard to come by.”
On occasion, the team purchases ice time from other venues beyond the home rink, with is Hamill Rink in Byram.
“Another sheet would be helpful,” he said, which is an understatement.
Greenwich’s aging ice rink, originally an open air rink in the 1950s, with its walls and ceiling added over the years, has only a single bathroom for teams and spectators, and there are no showers or locker rooms.
In recent years the compressors have malfunctioned, and at the end of every summer, rink staff cross their fingers that the aging ice-making equipment will abide.
Rurak’s enthusiasm for GHS hockey and motivation to give players the best experience possible is paying off. The state championship remains tantalizingly close.
“Last year 2017-18 we had the most regular season wins. We had 18 wins and 2 losses and made it to the finals,” he said. “They won 4 to 2 with an open net goal – we outplayed them and out shot them. We just had some bad bounces.”
That championship remains a tantalizing goal. Until then, Rurak continues to build the program, give as many GHS players a D1 experience as possible, and getting the community involved.
“I want to attract and retain talent and to win and FCIAC and state championship and be in position to compete for it every single year,” he said. “I want us to be at Yale every year in the semi finals.”