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Fenway rink lures area players

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2009

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When Paul Laubenstein’s son was 6, they attended a Father’s Day event at Fenway Park, tossing a ball in the shadow of the Green Monster. On Monday, father and son (James, now 14) will take the historic field again, with a catch: This time they’ll be on skates.

Laubenstein, who recently moved to Swampscott, is the founder of the New England Senior Hockey League.

His team and several others from the league will help break in the ice at Fenway on Saturday and Monday as the old ballpark prepares to host this year’s NHL Winter Classic, featuring the Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers on New Year’s Day.

Players from 10 lucky senior league teams are paying a few hundred dollars apiece to help defray the cost - around $7,500 an hour - for the privilege of chasing the puck on the temporary rink installed out by second base. In the coming weeks, Fenway also will welcome college teams (Boston College vs. Boston University on Jan. 8), a Bruins Legends fund-raiser on Jan. 2, and a couple of community open-skating sessions sponsored by the city of Boston.

According to Laubenstein, as many as 75 teams from his league scrambled to fill the openings to play at Fenway. Five of the 10 teams that made it are based north of Boston.

Michael Norton of Revere, 51, captains a team, the Bison, that ranges in age from “old-timers’’ like himself down to a Salem State student who is 19. His players include a surgeon, a lawyer, a few engineers - “some guys who are pretty well-heeled,’’ he said. Still, he was surprised at how quickly they responded.

“Within a few hours, we had at least 10 guys saying ‘Absolutely,’ ’’ he says.

“You always hear the phrase ‘It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ ’’ said Scott McKay, captain of a team of self-proclaimed “tech geeks’’ who work in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. “It’s almost always overused, but I suspect this might genuinely be’’ one of those opportunities.

Laubenstein, a former second-string goalie at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who started the league with four teams in 1982, now administers schedules for 320 teams representing various divisions and age levels around New England.

“It’s all I do, every day,’’ he said. At 54, he is the oldest player in the league. On game days, he still minds the net for his team, Hofbrau, which plays out of Quincy, where his son James lives with his mother.

As director of the league, he reserved a spot for his team before making the other nine available. He had to sign a waiver so that James could skate with his team. No problem, he says.

“He’s bigger than anybody on my team,’’ said the proud father. “He can handle it.’’

Everett’s Chris Gianatassio plays with a bunch of buddies, most of them recent college graduates. In their first year with NESHL, the Dockside (named for their favorite bar in Malden) leads its division with a 10-0-1 record.

When Laubenstein sent out an e-mail announcing the Fenway openings, Gianatassio, the Dockside captain, didn’t hesitate. Without asking his teammates if they would be willing to come up with about $250 each to play, he grabbed one of the spots. His team will skate under the lights on Saturday night, with plenty of friends and relatives in the stands.

Though many of his friends are struggling to find decent-paying work in the current economy - “No one has any money,’’ he said - nearly every player jumped at the chance. They’re also making room for a few nonroster friends who are dying to play.

“Everyone we know is totally jealous,’’ said McKay, captain of Kendall United. Though none of his teammates scored tickets to see the Bruins in the Winter Classic, he said, landing one of the senior league games at Fenway is even better.

“The best place to watch the Bruins is at home on TV. This is way cooler.’’

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