Before beginning their inaugural hockey season in September, Great Neck-Herricks Knights head coach Joe Calandra said the only player’s name he knew was his son’s.
Fast forward six months, Calandra has led the middle school hockey team primed for a top-three finish in the Islanders High School Hockey League’s middle school division.
“To be honest, the expectations were not that high going into the season,” Calandra said in a phone interview with Blank Slate Media. “We only had one practice before the season began, so it was a quick adjustment to learn everyone’s names and abilities.”
The Knights were founded by the owner of Great Neck’s Pro Shop, Eitan Hakami. Hakami said the idea for starting a team was his idea, but it has taken a collective effort of parents to make their inaugural season a success.
According to Hakami, there were talks of integrating a team in 2018 through the Great Neck Public Schools system.
When efforts to do so were unavailing, Hakami took matters into his own hands and decided to round up a team and fund it through donations from himself and other parents.
“It’s been great to see everyone turn out and pitch in their efforts to help the kids this year,” Hakami said. “It may have been my brainchild, but all of the parents involved have contributed here. It truly could not have been done without their help.”
With a record of 14-6-1, the Knights currently sit third in the division. Calandra touted the dedication and coachability of his players and cited it as a reason for their regular-season success.
“Everyone on the team has been incredibly responsive and receptive to the coaching,” Calandra said. “It certainly makes my job easier to have that mutual trust in my players, and them having that trust in me.”
Though the team is not a direct affiliation of either the Great Neck or Herricks school districts, Calandra said, there is a sense of school pride he’s noticed before, during, and after games.
“Some of the players here also do travel hockey, but I think what separates this team from others is that these guys get to see each other in school every day and build a consistent bond through that,” he said. “I think there’s also an added pressure when it comes to travel, so it’s been refreshing for the players, and for me to coach.”
Calandra said the roster, consisting of students in 5th-7th grade, is one of the league’s youngest. With 18 players, it is also one of the largest in the league, which presented a slight challenge to Calandra.
“There’s a lot of diversified talent on this team,” Calandra said. “Playing with 18 kids it’s a bit tough for everyone to find some ice time, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job of dispersing it accordingly.”
The Knights’ offensive stats reflect steady puck contribution throughout the lineup, with six players scoring at least 12 goals and dishing out at least four assists.
Defenseman Jared Petruso, centers Benjamin Halpern and Max Wang, and goalie Andrew Hirschbein were selected for the division’s all-star game on Saturday.
The trio of Petruso, Halpern, and Wang have combined for 56 of the team’s 128 goals, and 19 assists. Hirschbein’s 12 wins in front of the net are tied for most in the division.
“Those guys have really spearheaded the effort, but it’s been a total team effort,” Calandra said. “We’re excited those guys get to represent us ahead of the playoffs.”
Calandra and his team have at least another week until postseason play begins. When asked if any of the rotations or lineups will be switched around, Calandra said he will be taking the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it method.”
“It’s going to all stay the same,” he said. “It’s worked well for us so far, so I don’t see any need for changes.”