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In a normal season, Connor Preston and the Syracuse Men’s Club Ice Hockey team would be gearing up for its first game in October.
Instead, with the season postponed until at least January, players have found ways to keep busy. For Preston, a senior forward who notched 12 goals and 13 assists last season, that means working with young kids six days a week at Twin Ice Rinks in Cicero.
As local schools implement a hybrid of remote and in-person learning this fall, Twin Rinks, officially known as the Midstate Athletic Community Center, started offering a hybrid drop-in program to help kids adapt to remote learning and allow them to spend time strengthening their ice hockey skills.
Twin Rinks’ senior manager, Brendan Flanagan, offered Preston the job. Flanagan is a former SU club hockey player and the son of Syracuse women’s hockey head coach Paul Flanagan.
During a typical day, Preston arrives at the rink at 8 a.m. and begins working with a group of up to eight kids ranging from 7 to 12 years old. He helps them complete assignments and access applications for remote learning programs.
“It’s really nice to build a relationship with these kids,” Preston said.
Once their schoolwork is finished, he takes them to the Twin Rinks gym to play basketball, wiffle ball or other activities to keep them entertained and active. From there, depending on the day’s schedule, kids have on-ice skating sessions. Preston is usually paired up with younger kids who are just learning the basics of the game.
Preston recently spent most of his time one-on-one teaching a boy how to skate for the first time.
“It’s fun because I realize I was in those shoes at one point,” Preston said. “And it’s nice to give back to the hockey community.”
When NHL and American Hockey League players from the central New York area skate at Twin Rinks, the kids flock to watch them play and give them fist bumps, Preston said.
“I was the same way when I was younger,” Preston said.
Preston, an alternate captain for SU, is also trying to prepare the team for the upcoming season, despite the unusual circumstances.
The Orange were Eastern States Collegiate Hockey League champions of the 2018-19 season. But last year, the Orange fell to rivals NYU 6-4 in the ESCHL quarterfinals. The loss came just a week before students were sent home from campus due to the coronavirus.
“Nobody wanted to go down there and lose in the first round, and to them especially,” said Ford Hatchett, a senior defenseman. Preston scored a goal in the game.
“He was one of the ones leading the charge, keeping us in it until the very end,” Hatchett said.
Without a typical practice schedule and training sessions this year, assistant coach Andrew Wolinski expects players to be “self-reliant.” Players are responsible for getting into season-shape, Wolinski said.
To build camaraderie, the team has held roller skating sessions in Thornden Park, organized Zoom meetings and watched the NHL playoffs at their off-campus house.
“We’re not playing on the ice, but at least we can all be together as a team and watch hockey,” Preston said.
At 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds, Preston has gained a reputation as a physical player and fast skater, one who isn’t afraid to go for the puck or take a hit, his coaches and teammates said. When he first joined as a freshman, though, his physical play often led to excessive minutes in the penalty box, Wolinski said.
But last season, Preston kept his penalties in check, allowing him to contribute more on the ice.
“Connor has definitely grown as a player since his freshman year,” Wolinski said. “He’s become more disciplined and mature both on and off the rink.”
Entering his final season, Preston will be working with a younger core because key players graduated last year. He still expects the Orange to get back to where they were in 2018-19.
“There’s no time to make mistakes,” Preston said. “We need to be ready to go when we get back on the ice.”
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