For every import who plays in British Ice Hockey, there’s a family behind the scenes with a story to tell of how their loved one came to be involved in the sport.
Blackburn Hawks’ forward RJay Berra (above) is one of three brothers for whom hockey was always likely to be a feature of their lives.
His grandparents had no idea what the sport entailed when they moved to Canada from Italy, but for his dad, Renzo, hockey quickly became a way of life.
Bitten by the hockey bug after playing outdoors with some friends, Renzo progressed through minor, junior and university levels before going on to attend two NHL camps.
A forward with an eye for goal, he eventually moved into coaching and also spent 15 years scouting part-time for Tampa Bay Lightning.
After receiving a grant from the NHL Players’ Association in 2002, Renzo started a hockey program for disadvantaged youth in Prince George Secondary School (PGSS), British Columbia.
Beginner classes proved successful, with intermediate sessions soon added, and in 2008 Renzo introduced a high performance program for elite hockey players.
The most talented youngsters in Northern British Columbia from ages 13-17 take part in the program, which has produced players who have progressed to leagues across North America and Europe.
The 15-17 male group play for Cariboo Cougars in the BC Major Midget Hockey League and regularly challenge for honours, while the mainly female Northern Capitals team are one of the best in their division.
RJay, along with brothers Hayden-James and Isaiah, attended the program which now has eight classes and around 170 students.
Instilling moral fibre, integrity and respect are at the heart of Renzo’s style of teaching and this is something he’s passed on to all three sons, but he admits they are all vastly different – both personally and in ice hockey.
Hayden-James, the ‘best skater’, is the focused, driven, more serious son, while Isaiah is individual, creative and not concerned by what others think.
Renzo rates Isaiah as the most complete player, but believes ‘easy going, laid back, funny guy’ RJay is the best scorer of the trio.
“RJay is smart – he sees the play developing,” Renzo said. “He’s able to get open for a good scoring chance, and from the top of the circles to the goal he is our best, most accurate and pure goalscorer.
“In junior hockey he seldom missed. He was the leading goal scorer in the BC Hockey League in his last year of junior, before being traded to a team which was making a cup run in the Alberta Hockey League.”
Renzo’s involvement with the hockey program has inevitably spilled over into the Berra family make-up, with the sport used as a vehicle to teach his boys skills they can use in their adult lives.
“The game shows kids how to deal with different personalities on the team, how to put up with some, and how to be an effective, reliable and respected team member,” he said.
“We always encouraged the boys to use every ice time to the best of their potential. To work hard to develop their skills so they could give themselves the best opportunity possible to achieve their goals.
“This is usually professional hockey for 90% of Canadian boys, but we always made sure they kept in mind that schooling and other responsibilities in life are not to be compromised.”
While Hayden-James and Isaiah have put hockey on the backburner to pursue their education, eldest son RJay is currently enjoying an excellent debut season in NIHL North Moralee D1. Keeping up with his progress has proved a difficult task for his family.
“RJay played most of his junior hockey in Prince George for the Spruce Kings, so we watched all home games live – his out of town games we watched online webcasts,” said Renzo.
“This year we’ve followed some of RJay’s games on internet radio broadcasts, but unfortunately there’s no video feed.
“We access the Hawks’ site, but we rely on Skype to follow up on games he’s played. We’d love to watch RJay play via video feed in Britain, but no luck.
“I hope the leagues evolve to have video feed requirements in all professional teams in Britain. I think this would be an effective way to grow the sport and expose your product to the rest of the world.”
Although Renzo is happy to see his sons play hockey, as with many parents he remains focused on their futures and is keen to see them enjoy successful careers.
“All three boys have attended or are currently attending university, which we’re very proud of,” he said. “I think when they finish playing hockey they’ll have no regrets and will be happy with their youth life, and the memories, skills, and experiences that hockey has afforded them.
“At the end of the day we want our boys to be passionate in what they do, and to pursue a career that feeds that passion.”
(Image permission: Steve Pollitt)