Cathie Bonner has taught youth skating and hockey for four decades. She’s not done yet.
For the uninitiated, the 200-foot sheet of ice at your local rink can be intimidating. On the surface, the temperature is actually below freezing (a frigid twenty something degrees), and it’s not much better in the stands. Add one puck, two goals, five circles and lines, twelve players with razor sharp steel skates, sticks, helmets and head-to-toe pads and you've got yourself some hockey. It can seem like a lot to get started, scary even, but not when you have help.
No one knows hockey’s complexity and beauty better than Coach Cathie Bonner, one of the skating coaches at Brewster Ice Arena, located on Fields Lane in Brewster. For forty years, Coach Cathie has helped boys and girls of all levels learn to skate, stickhandle, and love the game like she does. “I love having a person that really needs to learn, like they're starting from scratch. It’s just so rewarding, even if they could take five steps and they get off the ice and then watch them light up,” she says.
“Fifteen years ago, I had a child coming out for hockey practice, and he was just a fish floundering in the sea. Arms flailing, feet going all over… But we worked with him every practice, and he gave 120%, and he ended up going to play D-1 college hockey.” Her eyes light up when she remembers those early lessons, and it’s easy to see why she’s devoted her life to this game and the people who make it possible. These days, those people are the staff at Brewster Ice Arena.
From the zamboni driver to the kids in the skate rental shop and pro-shop, even the concession stand; if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a rink to make a hockey player. “I have helpers in the group classes, I have a director who runs the program, and we really all work as a team. I started here 15 years ago. We all know each other, like a big goofy family. Walking into work every day is a blast,” Coach Cathie says. The rink has four levels of classes. There’s a class for kids ages 3 - 5, who are happy to just trot around snow plowing their way side to side, a basic level for kids over 6, looking to learn the fundamentals, and then either freestyle figure skating or introduction to hockey, where they can put it all together.
“You really have to teach to the child. You have to know their skillset, their mindset, what they want to do.” Coach Cathie’s personal approach helps her students, but each player she spends time with leaves their mark on her, too. “Watching the little babies in intro to hockey going off to college and following them all the way through. Each group that comes out of my class, to go on to travel hockey, and then they grow and grow,” she pauses with a smile, “it’s always so hard letting go of them at the end.” But neither the player nor their coach really let go; Coach Cathie recalls college-aged kids coming up to her and reminding her that she taught them to skate, or strangers on vacations bringing up Westchester County hockey, and in turn, her name.
Coach Cathie started skating on figure skates (the longer, more balanced skate blades with toe picks on the front for jumping), but switched back and forth to hockey skates (sharper, shorter, and more curved skate blades) as a child. She remembers always being somewhat envious of her brother because he got to play hockey before she could. Her coaching career started seemingly by chance, during a dinner conversation at local NFL legend Bob Highland’s now-closed bar, The Sports Page in White Plains. Her first student? His son. “We had been there for dinner one night, and we just got talking, so I started working with them. I was very young, and I was terribly nervous, but it ended up being fun.” Today, odds are that if you ask any northern Westchester (or Connecticut) hockey parent who taught their child to skate—it’s Coach Cathie. All these years later, she still gets so much out of all she puts in, as do her students.
“Right now I'm teaching the Learn To Skate level and I have a bunch of kids on the Mite hockey team. The Mites come out on the ice, do some demonstrations for the little kids, and I always say, ‘these kids started where you did,’ and the [learn to skate] kids are like, ‘they can't really be doing this,’” she says.
But they’re doing it. Early morning after early morning. The hockey kids spend weekends waking up before the sun, piling into cars and vans and trucks bound for rinks around New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and they’re happy. They’re learning more than just crossovers. “[Hockey teaches] routine, accountability,” Coach Cathie says, “and it starts young over here - five years old. Manners, sportsmanship, they’re all best buddies, they hang tight with each other. It’s awesome to watch.”
Youth hockey has a complicated litany of levels. To start, there’s Mini Mite (ages five to six), Mite (ages seven to eight), and Squirt (nine to ten). Things change at the Peewee level (ages eleven to twelve), because that’s where physical contact comes into play, meaning, you can hit each other. After Peewee, there’s Bantam (ages thirteen to fourteen), Minor Midget (sixteen and under, or high school junior varsity), then Major Midget (eighteen and under, or varsity). Each age group is then broken out by skill—there’s AAA, AA, A, B, C, Elite, Express, too many to list. After that, if you’re lucky, it’s on to a career in Juniors or D-1 College, both of which are feeders for professional leagues both in the U.S., like the NHL, and abroad. Coach Cathie helps them all, and treats them all, equally. “I always tell the kids at the end of every session, I say, ‘go thank mom and dad for bringing you here, and help them do the dishes.”
The game of hockey has changed substantially since 1875 when eighteen men at Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, Quebec, played the first recorded game. Hockey today is faster. The kids are faster. “These young five-year-olds, I’m sending four-year olds out of my program that are like lightning. Since the year before the pandemic, I’ve noticed an unbelievable quick growth in the Mite level. Some kids flatten out, some kids leave, but the ones that stay only get better and better.” Despite all the changes, for Coach Cathie the fundamentals and the principles remain consistent. At one moment, she’s beaming with an ear-to-ear smile, then in an instant, it’s game time. “I want 100% when you’re on the ice, pay attention, and for the most part, they do. They love it. And they work very hard.”
Most hockey seasons end in the spring, which brings up the annual question Coach Cathie seems to ask herself more and more: when will she hang up the skates? “This is the question every day. I think about [my legacy] all the time now. I look at the rink and say, ‘this is my happy place.’ I’m trying to get at least seven more years. I think I can handle seven more years. The kids keep me in shape.”
For more information on skating and hockey programs at Brewster Ice Arena, visit: brewstericearena.com