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Berklee music students improvise a hockey program

A Berklee College of Music kid without the prospect of a gig is one thing. But a hockey player without a game? Without a team? Without the mellifluent sound of a Zamboni striking up its cacophonous engine in the morning? There are just some things that chafe against all the laws of humanity.

John Kingsley, violist by day and night, a guitar picker from his days in double runners, and a Georgia boy with a passion for pucks, had to do something about that.

"Hey, I grew up playing high school sports outside Atlanta," the 20-year-old Kingsley recalled recently, his love of music and vulcanized rubber a full-blown 24-hour-a-day opus that has resulted in the unfinished work that is Berklee's hockey team, the coed IceCats . "In Atlanta, if you say you want to play ice hockey, they tell you, 'Right, hockey . . . gotcha covered there, son,' and then they toss you a pair of cleats and point you to the football field."

Well, no one at Berklee told Kingsley and his pals they couldn't have a hockey team, but there are some athletic truths that every Berklee student deems to be as self-evident as Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. Sports and sonatas don't play from the same score sheet.

Berklee's business is music, in all shapes and forms and vocations, and it has carved out a handsome reputation at the corner of Boylston Street and Mass. Ave. For all its abundant musical splendor, however, Berklee isn't much into the sports thing. It doesn't have an athletic department. When it comes to getting game, Berklee students have accepted that the baton is something for a maestro to raise rather than for an athlete to pass. At least until now.

Kingsley, who tossed a pair of skates and a hockey stick in the car when he made the sojourn to Berklee as a freshman late in the summer of 2005, surfed the Internet during last year's Christmas break, investigating what it might take to start a club hockey team. Encouraged enough to test the interest level on campus, he returned to post flyers outside classrooms and in dorms, and eventually widened the pursuit on-line, inviting fellow students to an informal January meeting to discuss propping Berklee up in the crease.

"In a way, I think everyone deserves a pat on the back," said 19-year-old Emily Hochman, a defenseman from Montclair, N.J., and a Professional Music major. "John got the ball rolling -- he's the brains of the operation."

"No question," added the Moscow-born Ivan Chopik, 19, a forward who is torn between the idea of one day being a musical sensation or becoming an entertainment lawyer who owns his own recording label. "Without John, I don't know where we'd be, or even if we'd be."

Ensemble assembled
Kingsley isn't looking for, or believes there to be, true glory or praise in being the mover and shaker behind Berklee hockey. He got into this simply because he wanted to play a little, and it grew from there, which is another way of saying that scheduling games and practice times, along with collecting dues and performing all the other administrative tasks of being the ad hoc hockey general manager, is often more work than one man could want.

But, said Kingsley, it also has become a joyous journey, a learning experience he never expected. He has discovered administrative skills he never knew he had, and become both puck-chaser and problem-solver for a team that numbers around 20, depending on the number of exams and gigs his teammates are balancing on a given game night.

Not in his wildest dreams did he expect he would one day be sitting in a cozy corner of the ancient Matthews Arena, the original home of the Bruins, relaxing by playing his viola prior to a recent game against The Harringtons, a senior team from Wakefield.

"If I could stay in hockey, wow, that would be so cool," said Kingsley, whose career focus, he figures, will lead to some teaching, too. "I mean, I love music, but I've done it my whole life, like since I was 6 or something. Now that we've got this team going, it's just made me think I could do something -- I'm not sure what, exactly, but something -- in hockey."

If energy and enthusiasm count for much, Kingsley just might find a way to balance his guitar pickin' and puck aspirations. As for the recent 14-6 thumping by the Harringtons, that won't get Kingsley or his teammates a place in the cheap seats, be it in the Garden or Symphony Hall.

The Harringtons, stocked with guys in their late 20s and 30s, some with college experience, toyed with the Berklees, and politely began to lay off the offense a little when the goal differential edged over a touchdown. The night's highlight -- truly an aberration, according to members of Team Berklee -- came with about eight minutes gone in the first period. Objecting to what he felt was a crosscheck to the back of one of his defensemen, Berklee goalie George Stearns left his crease and touched off an old-time hockey on-ice fracas.

"Cover your eyes!" shouted Hochman, turning her face away from the melee as she sat among teammates on the Berklee bench. "This is not good. Musicians with aggression issues."

The dustup, nectar to the gods for anyone grown tired of the politically correct NHL, was over very quickly. For Stearns, a singer/songwriter who came to Berklee to learn how to write movie scores, the night was over. Referees Dan Obrzut and Scott Mulcahey tossed him out of the game, leaving the goal chores (and the ruins) to backup Soodi Ilkhani, who grew up learning her netminding in the hockey mecca of Montreal.

"I try to give guys the benefit of the doubt," noted Obrzut. "But, hey, there's no reason for the goalie to come out like that and hit a guy three times across the face with his blocker."

Stearns, originally from Newburyport and now living in Weymouth, later disputed the referee's version but was nonetheless contrite. He stomped off in his pads, made his way down the narrow hallway, and quickly, Elvis had left the building, without saying goodbye to his teammates.

"Best thing at that point was to leave," the 32-year-old Stearns later said. "Otherwise, you know, it can end up continuing to the parking lot after the game. Stupid. No one needs that.

"To tell you the truth, I'm kind of ashamed and embarrassed by it. Fighting's not part of my everyday life, but I couldn't understand that dude hitting my guy. That's no excuse, though. I sunk to his level, or maybe I sunk to my own worst level."

All in all, it took the on-ice officials some six minutes of running time to sort out the penalties, and that's valuable time in club hockey. The periods, all three of them, are 17 minutes each, and that clock never stops. Games must be squeezed into a one-hour ice rental. To lose six minutes to the zebras is about a 12 percent reduction in game time.

"What are those guys doing out there?" muttered Kingsley from the bench, venting aimlessly toward the refs. "Hey, guys, we're paying for this, you know."

Building interest
The IceCats spread their schedule across the New England Senior Hockey League, which includes competition such as The Harringtons, and they also pick up games against club teams from schools such as Brandeis and Emerson. According to Kingsley, Berklee will play some 30 games this inaugural season. They also try to work in at least one on-ice practice per week, along with some dry-land training, and when weather and time permit, they have even cobbled together some street hockey games near Kingsley's apartment in the North End.

For Berklee hockey, it's game on . . . and on . . . and on.

At the start of the season, the IceCats set up a fund-raising game against Emerson College's club team at Boston University's Walter Brown Arena. To drum up interest, Berklee players took shifts selling tickets, setting up a table on the mezzanine level of the main building on Mass. Ave.

"That was a little weird," recalled Kingsley, noting how foreign the concept of competitive athletics can be at Berklee. "We put up this sign, saying it's Berklee versus Emerson, and it's 5 bucks a ticket. Well, not once, but I bet 10-15 times, kids would come up, read the sign, look at us and say, 'Right, OK, so I pay the 5 bucks, but do I bring my own equipment or do you give that to us?'

"No lie, they thought they'd get to play! I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'No, dude, this is college athletics. Here's how it works. You pay the 5 bucks, you sit in the stands, and you watch us play.'

"Just shows, we're all learning our way through this, I guess."

Eventually, the point got across, and the game was a success, clearing about $1,000, thanks in part to a 50-50 raffle. The money will help defray the costs of a start-up program that has been almost completely participant-funded and self-coached. According to Kingsley, each player will invest some $500 this season to wear the IceCats' maroon-and-silver uniform. Interest has run so high that he expects the IceCats will have to conduct tryouts before next season.

"I'm not wild about the idea of cuts," said Kingsley. "But it shows the interest is there."

Stearns, the goalie with a growl, said he felt a tremendous sense of pride to lead his fellow IceCats onto the ice for the game at BU. He had given up hockey, once his primary love, for nearly a dozen years before coming back this season to play for Berklee.

"What drew me back? I really don't know," he said. "I've always loved hockey, and I like to be doing something physical, whether it's hockey, or kayaking, whatever. More than anything, I think it's just because I love to stop pucks.

"And it's fun to be with the guys again . . . girls, too, I guess. The girls didn't play when I was growing up, so that's cool."

Getting into the rhythm
The night of the fund-raiser at BU, Stearns recalled, he and a few teammates met outside Berklee to figure out transportation. The drill usually has the IceCats jumping on the MBTA with equipment bags -- a challenge when lugging your viola -- or carpooling. To Stearns's amazement, the IceCats had a pep band for the game against Emerson.

"First, I was surprised we even had a pep band, and I'm not sure, but most of them came from Northeastern -- I still don't know why Berklee would have NU students as the band," said Stearns, who has built his own recording studio on land he and his wife own at edge of a Weymouth pond. "But, hey, whatever.

"The bigger surprise was -- get this -- the pep band had a bus to take them to the game. You know, one of those long vans, holds about 15. And there we were, the ones actually playing in the game, and we had to jump on the T or catch a ride. Huh? That's Berklee right there, I guess -- you gotta take care of the musicians."

Kingsley's closest aides in running the team are smooth-skating forward Jim Gately, a 21-year-old from Rockland who played at Xaverian before he was sidelined with heart troubles, and Brian Mullen, a former member of the Milton High varsity (Class of 2004). The three divvy up coaching and captaincy duties.

"I'm like one big megaphone for everyone to hear," said Gately, the official captain, who said he keeps his heart problems in check by knowing when not to push too hard on the ice. "Going to the NHL was my dream once, and then I had to quit, find something else, and that was music. But when John posted for the club team, I figured, 'Hey, why not?' And it's been great."

"It's all in good fun, just to play hockey," said Mullen, who, as a commuting student, was looking for something to provide him with a closer bond with Berklee and its students. "Hockey and music are the same in one sense, if you are talking about a band. You all have to find a way to like each other. It becomes sort of your family away from family. It's chemistry. It's friendship. It's cool. We all feel we're doing something good for the school, too."

According to Kingsley, the kinship has continued off-ice, too. Some of the players have talked about forming bands, and there have been the expected spontaneous jam sessions. Give a Berklee student a hockey stick, and an air guitar concert is but a wrist shot away.

"Just cool to be part of a team again, and that's something most of us haven't had in a long time," said Kingsley, a rower in his high school days in Alpharetta, Ga. "We're never boring, that's for sure. And it's kind of cool, we've got this going, and there's this kind of big-men-on-campus feel to it."

Hockey, like music, said Kingsley, is all about integration and reaction. Musicians have to give and take from each other, move the music along.

"It's all about the ebb and flow of the game," said Kingsley. "And at the risk of sounding way too cheesy, I'll stop right there."

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