By Peter Schwartz
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When you think about hockey in New York City, obviously the Rangers come to mind.  Their success over the last two seasons, by getting to the Stanley Cup Final and the Eastern Conference Final, created a buzz for hockey that we hadn’t seen in this area for quite some time.

The Rangers’ accomplishments and popularity, coupled with the Islanders’ relocation to Brooklyn this coming season, has certainly inspired young hockey players in the Big Apple to be the best that they can be.  But when it comes to youth hockey in New York City, getting to the pinnacle has been a difficult task.

In fact, the last time that a youth hockey team from New York City reached the highest level possible was 12 years ago.  Well, that wait is over, as the youth hockey program at Aviator Sports & Events Center will ascend to USA Hockey Tier 1 status starting with the 2015-16 season.

Aviator Sports & Events Center

(Credit: Aviator Sports & Events Center)

“We’re not only proud, but we’re excited,” said Chris Werstine, Aviator Sports hockey director. “We’ve worked tirelessly. Aviator Sports & Events Center is a destination for youth hockey.”

It’s been a long, but now rewarding journey for the Aviator Hockey Club.  In less than 10 years since the program’s formation, there has been amazing growth.  Since 2007, Aviator has expanded from 25 participants to 13 travel teams.  Now, after four seasons at the Tier 2 level, they will jump to the highest level recognized by USA Hockey.

In the past, you wouldn’t think of New York City as a youth hockey hotbed, but Aviator has succeeded in changing that perception.

“The growth of the sport here has been really rewarding to watch,” said Werstine. “We’ve been working very hard for the last nine years to make sure that our program grows organically. Aviator is known in the community and we’ve been top competition for years. Hockey is on the map here.”

As Aviator prepares for the jump to Tier 1, it is still basking in the glow of its latest accomplishments at the Tier 2 level.  Back in February, Aviator’s Tier 2 14U club participated in the Super Series Tournament in Buffalo and held its own against Tier 1 competition, including one victory.

Aviator Sports & Events Center

The peewee 2002 team celebrates with coaches Chris Werstine and Bill Faulkner after winning the 2013-14 LIAHL championship. (Credit: Aviator Sports & Events Center)

They knocked off Brewster 6-5 in the Long Island Amateur Hockey League championship game and moved onto the state championship tournament, but lost to Niagara in overtime.

Like with any successful sports program, a big part of the success can be attributed to strong coaching and a quality staff.  Aviator has been fortunate to attract quality people to help the program grow.

“That’s the heart of it,” said Werstine. “We enjoy a great reputation when it comes to our coaches and that’s not by mistake. Each and every one of us is committed to the success of our players and to Aviator Sports. We’re really proud of what we have built here. It’s taken us nine years, but we have grown this program from the ground up.”

Aviator’s rise to Tier 1 status coincides with the arrival of NHL hockey in Brooklyn, as the Islanders get set for their first season at Barclays Center.  During their 43-year run in Nassau County, the Islanders were very committed to growing youth hockey. Now they have a chance to do the same in Brooklyn, where there is already a program on the rise.

“Yes, there is a lot of hoopla about the Islanders,” said Werstine. “It’s just further testament to the growth of this sport in NYC. We’re sure it’s important to the Islanders to extend their roots to the youth hockey community here in Brooklyn.”

In reaching Tier 1 status, Aviator continues in its quest towards a nationally competitive hockey program.  New York City now has a legitimate opportunity to develop hockey players and send them to the highest levels.

“Our drive is to have players from the Aviator hockey community playing collegiately and professionally,” said Werstine. “That’s our focus for the next 2-4 years of developing the talent that we have here.”

Detroit likes to call itself “Hockeytown,” a moniker that it has earned over the years with the success of both the Red Wings and youth hockey programs.  But hockey in New York City continues to grow, and people around the country need to take notice.

Starting this fall, New York City will have two NHL teams, but also a youth hockey program that continues to grow.  With Aviator’s program reaching USA Hockey Tier 1 status, it’s just the tip of the iceberg to where the sport is heading in the Big Apple.

For more information on the hockey program, visit AviatorSports.com or call 1-800-656-4976.

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan.  You can also follow @AviatorHockey and @AviatorSports.