The competitor in ninth-year Urbana High School ice hockey coach Toby Heusser, a former NCAA Division I athlete himself at Towson University, wants to win every game he coaches, he said. But wins and losses are not where his priorities lie. The most important aspect of coaching, he said, is his role as a mentor during quite a transformative time in his student-athletes’ lives and the part of his job he most cherishes is watching them develop and flourish, not only as hockey players, but as individuals.
“In 20 years, I’m not going to remember every game I coached, or who won, I’m going to remember the relationships,” Heusser said. “To see them and get to know them when they’re in seventh grade and see them when they’re in 12th grade and how far they’ve come, makes me happier than anything. To see them go to college and have jobs and get married and start families.”
It just so happens that the supportive, nurturing environment promoted by Heusser—that the players themselves have also bought into—has resulted in historical success. The 2011 Maryland Student Hockey League state finalist Hawks (7-3) are currently tied for first place in the Monocacy Valley Conference (as of Jan. 23) and poised for another postseason appearance—it’s been at least a decade since they’ve missed qualifying for playoffs.
During Heusser’s tenure with Urbana, more than 35 siblings, including Mike and Jeff Matrone, current senior defender John, Peter and Chris Gallo, Andrew, Michael and current Hawks sophomore forward John Rempe, and assistant coach Adam Gnatowski and his younger brother, senior forward Andrew, have passed through the program. By the time they’re seniors, Heusser has known most of his players for six or more years, whether it’s from hanging around the Skate Frederick rink or being dragged around to an older siblings’ games.
But blood-related or not, every Urbana ice hockey player, past and present, is part of one big family. The Hawks’ unbreakable bond shows up at alumni events—so many former players attended this winter’s annual alumni game in December that it became a challenge just to get everyone on the ice.
“I think that shows that once you’re a Hawk, you’re always a Hawk and you never lose that affiliation with the team, no matter how long it’s been; you can always come back,” said John Rempe, who said he likely wouldn’t be playing hockey if not for his older brothers. “I plan on coming back and helping the younger kids (after I graduate), too.”
The proof is in Heusser’s coaching staff, which includes two Urbana graduates: Sean Sun (2011) and Gnatowski (2012). And in the number of former players who are still committed to supporting the team by coming out to games, participating in or helping out with practices and sharing their experience and offering advice through speaking engagements. Among them is Michael Rempe, who serves as the president of the Mount St. Mary’s University ice hockey team.
“I still have that Urbana pride,” he said. “I still attend all the games and I was taking videos of the game (for Heusser). Toby is
very welcoming for all alumni, and he likes to have good role models surrounding the team.”
From the professional level down to recreational leagues, the ice hockey community in general is a fairly small—compared to other sports—tight-knit community, Gnatowski said. And playing for a club team—ice hockey is not a Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association sanctioned varsity sport—perpetuates that “bubble” type atmosphere, said Peter Gallo (2017). Whereas most high school sports practice every day, on campus, right after school, Urbana ice hockey trains together on the ice once a week—all Frederick County teams share ice time at one facility—and players must drive or be driven at least 30 minutes.
“Everyone on the team is in the same situation and it’s drastically different than all the other sports, so we all share the same
understanding,” said Peter Gallo. “That in itself created a certain atmosphere.”
The youngest Rempe said he remembers growing up watching his brothers and their teammates represent the Urbana community, waiting for his turn to do the same. That’s been a common theme among Hawk ice hockey siblings, Heusser said, and it plays a major role in tying all the “generations” together.
“There were many familiar faces (when I started coaching last year), some of the boys had already been over to my house,” Gnatowski said. “And there were also a bunch of last names I was familiar with either from school or from playing with their siblings.”
Four years of high school can fly by, Heusser said, but players’ roots will always be part of Urbana ice hockey.
“I want these kids to know there’s always a place here for them to come back to,” Heusser said. “Just because you’re graduating, doesn’t mean your years of Urbana hockey are over. When I say, ‘Once a Hawk, Always a Hawk,’ I want these kids to know I’ll always be there for them. They might be done with high school hockey, but they still have an entire team that supports them.”