Hockey is considered more important than air to some in Mount Pleasant.
None more so than Patriots Pee-Wee 1 head coach Russ Eidenberger.
Known by most as an emotional guy on the bench during games, Eidenberger coaches one of the pee-wee hockey teams for five months a year at the Isabella County Events Arena, 5165 E. Remus Road.
The two teams in the association representing Mount Pleasant in the ADRAY Community Hockey League are Pee-Wee 1 and 2. With so many kids in the community, Mount Pleasant created two teams in two different divisions to allow everyone playing time.
“I’m glad I can be a part of it,” Eidenberger said. “I love this sport, and there is no better feeling then when one of these kids does something phenomenal.”
But don’t ask Eidenberger about his team’s record, because he doesn’t keep track of it.
“I don’t pay attention to it, and the reason is it doesn’t matter,” Eidenberger said. “My objective is to teach hockey to these kids and to make sure they are having fun.”
Originally, Eidenberger was a hockey referee and started officiating in 1994 in the North American Hockey League, as well as the United States Hockey League. During his time in the rink, Eidenberger’s son watched him, which led to him wanting to play hockey.
Two years ago, his son’s team didn’t have a coach, and Eidenberger was still invested in officiating and traveling across the country. His wife made the suggestion that he coach.
Now, as not only one of the coaches, but one of the parents, he has to chip in for ice time, which costs $170 an hour. Ice time is the biggest expense in the league, despite traveling for more than 20 games and equipment being provided when needed.
With only two practices a week, Eidenberger has little time to prepare his team for the two-to-three games played on the weekend. Both Pee-Wee One and Two share the rink on weekdays but never play one another during the regular season.
In the beginning, it was difficult for Eidenberger because the team did not want to work together.
“It was really tough to get this group to start playing as a team, and it took me almost half the season,” Eidenberger said. “And the first half, we had very few wins, and it was very frustrating because I couldn’t get them to pass the puck to each other.”
Luckily for both coaches and players, adjustments were made, and the wins soon followed.
“I would feel comfortable saying there is not one team that I don’t think they could beat in the state of Michigan in our division, as long as they go out and do what they are supposed to do,” Eidenberger said.
Tom Kunse wears a lot of hats for the league as both the association president and the assistant coach for Eisenberger’s team.
“This is where future hockey players come from,” Kunse said while helping tie a player’s skate. “We play until they kick us out.”
The two Patriot teams skate against other Mid-Michigan kids aspiring to play hockey at the next level.
They travel from Big Rapids to Saginaw and from Bay City to Midland. This weekend, every team in the league will be attending a tournament in Sault Ste. Marie and rented 68 hotel rooms.
One thing Kunse wants his players to keep in mind throughout the weekend is their team’s mantra and what the league is all about.
“It’s not about falling,” he said. “It’s about getting up.”