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Islanders’ bond grows stronger


CLAYTON — Once fierce high school hockey rivals, Alexandria and Thousand Islands continue to combine forces on the ice.

In its second campaign known as the Islanders, the team has been competitive, but the idea of a combined squad still hasn’t been entirely accepted in the two river communities.

Senior right wing Zach Walti says his father hates the idea, while junior right wing Evan Dier’s dad has accepted the team concept.

“The community has really had a mixed reaction,” said Walti, a student at Alexandria. “A lot of young people thought it was a really good idea because there were diminishing numbers. But some older people — like my dad — didn’t really like it because they were fierce rivals — they were pretty dead set against it.”

But others are seeing the merits to such a merger.

“My dad, who also played hockey, liked the idea more,” said Dier, who attends Thousand Islands. “And getting guys together on the same team helps bring the community together more. They’re working on this in football and I think this has worked well in hockey.”

Representing two “hockey crazy” towns, the Islanders continue to grow as a team, as does their following in both Alexandria Bay and Clayton.

“For years, Thousand Islands and Alexandria Bay have been rivals,” Islanders coach Joe Eppolito said. “It has been fierce over the years and over the course of the past five or six years, there’s still a good nucleus of diehard people in both communities that still live and die by the colors of both schools.

“I think cooler heads are starting to prevail and the river communities are starting to embrace this team.”

The hockey team remains the only athletic merger between the two schools, which continue their rivalry against each other in other sports.

“I figured it was going to have to happen at some point,” Walti said. “Both T.I. and the Bay had low numbers, so this was the right move so we both could be competitive again.”

“It used to be really intense,” Dier said of the rivalry. “I was never on a team when it was really bad to the point where there was pure hatred between each other, but it was still a good rivalry.”

The Islanders sport the colors of both schools — Alexandria’s purple and white — and the gold and blue of Thousand Islands.

The team isn’t playing any favorites, either, as the Islanders, who also partner with General Brown and LaFargeville, play half their games at Alexandria Bay Ice Arena, and the balance of their schedule at the Clayton Recreation Park Arena.

“The kids have actually played together in minor hockey for a number of seasons,” Eppolito said. “So even though some of them competed against each other when the rivalry still existed on the ice, this has evolved into a camaraderie, so this is all pretty positive.”

Most recently, the Islanders battled to a tie through overtime with Hilton in the consolation game of the Islanders holiday tournament last Saturday, with the opposition prevailing in a shootout.

A collaborative effort in hockey isn’t anything new in the north country, as Immaculate Heart Central and Ontario Bay, who compete in Section 3, both sport rosters from several different schools.

Eppolito which said the Islanders were born primarily “because of financial reasons,” sees this as the wave of the future in scholastic hockey as school districts further combine their hockey teams.

“The first two seasons have been a challenge,” Eppolito said. “It’s always interesting to try and put players together that are coming from different communities and different sets of rules and guidelines. But we think it’s the right thing to do in looking down the road in order for us to build our program and to remain competitive, this is something we’re going to have to continue to do.”

Eppolito, a longtime head hockey coach at Thousand Islands, is joined by assistant coaches Chris Marshall, a former Alexandria head hockey coach, and Mike James, who has ties to both Alexandria and General Brown.

Both schools certainly have a history of success in hockey over the years, including a run by Thousand Islands to the Division II state title game in 2008. After the two teams combined, the Islanders moved up to Division I. But after a merger agreement with Carthage ended, the Islanders are in Division II this season.

“When the two teams combined, it definitely amped up the competition between friends at the same school,” Walti said. “Before it was just the two teams, but the first year there were so many kids competing for a spot on the team.”

Again skating in Section 10 after they reached the section Division I title game last year to complete a 10-11-1 campaign, the Islanders have been competitive this season as their past two regulation losses have been by one-goal margins.

“This was the right thing to do because we were having trouble hanging with teams like Massena and Potsdam,” Dier said. “We just didn’t have enough talent because of the low numbers and it was hard, but now things are getting better.”

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