This Coach has the Cure: Youth Hockey Players Get a Clinic From Ph.D Candidate

  • Peter Scalia addresses the Hanover Youth Hockey Association's bantam green team Wednesday evening at Campion Rink in West Lebanon. The team played in the state tournament in the Nashua area this weekend. Scalia is a Dartmouth Medical School Ph.D candidate who also works at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Peter Scalia watches his Hanover Youth Hockey Association bantam green team work on the power play Wednesday at West Lebanon's Campion Rink. Born in Montreal, Scalia is a Lebanon resident and Dartmouth Medical School student in his first season coaching. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2018

West Lebanon — The Hanover Hockey Association’s Bantam Green team had finished its final regular-season practice on Wednesday when coach Peter Scalia called the 13- and 14-year old boys together along the Campion Rink boards at center ice. The players mostly took a knee, and the only sound was heavy breathing and the shifting of a few skate blades on the snowy surface.

Scalia, a short but powerfully built Montreal native who’s a Dartmouth Medical School Ph.D candidate, stood against the wall and waited a few seconds before speaking. The 27-year-old’s sentences emerged with weight and passionate intensity.

Scalia spoke of how, during an earlier tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y., one terrible shift had led to defeat. He reminded the players that they needed complete concentration for their upcoming New Hampshire Tier II state tournament games in the Nashua area. And then he paused again, glancing at assistant coach Russ Teller, who played club hockey at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and is an area mechanical engineer.

“You can win this thing,” Scalia said slowly, gazing from face to face. “Russ and I believe it. You should believe it.”

There’s no doubting Scalia’s impact. Upbeat and demanding, he’s whipped his team into prime physical condition with meticulously planned practices that feature varying drills and virtually no standing around. The workouts also have raised the boys’ hockey knowledge. Players who skidded through tight turns and blindly threw the puck away under pressure are now crisp in execution and decision.

More importantly, however, Scalia has demonstrated that he truly cares about his charges. Earlier this month, he invited them to an hourlong, players-only presentation by a medical school mentor. The talk on mental health and the effects of drug use was well-attended and sparked conversation on the topic between the boys and their parents.

Although he handles a staggering workload and operates on only about five hours of sleep per night, Scalia arrives at the hockey locker room early and leaves it late so he can listen to the players talk and engage them in discussions about books, video games, school and life. Before Wednesday’s practice, he delivered a short sermon on what they should realistically expect if they want to play hockey after high school.

“At first I thought he was crazy, because he was very intense with us,” said Andrew Duany, a freshman at Lebanon High who also played on the Raiders’ varsity team this winter. “But he knows what we can do, and he wants to see us do it. He’s fluent in hockey and, by the end of the second practice, I was feeling better about everything.”

Hank Trimble is a Norwich resident and Hanover High freshman. He also sensed that Scalia knew not only the game, but the type of culture he wanted to instill.

“He’s a polite, humble man, but he was very clear about the respect he wanted us to show each other and our coaches,” Trimble said. “My parents love him.”

That’s perhaps the most amazing aspect of the season — that team manager Jeff Graham, whose son skates for the squad, said he hasn’t heard so much as a peep of dissent from other moms and dads. Youth sports seems to increasingly feature parents who demand playing time for their children, but who ignore their offspring’s disrespectful behavior and think nothing of publicly criticizing a coach.

Not on this team. Not with this coach.

“He doesn’t like unnecessary things happening on or off the ice,” said Graham, general manager of the Hanover Improvement Society and a longtime HHA board member who recruited Scalia after skating with him in biweekly 7 a.m. pickup games. “I’ve seen his practice schedules on paper, and every minute is documented.

“Every player has improved dramatically at every aspect of the game. It’s been an incredible season.”

Hanover may only have been 7-8-1 in league play, but expectations were not high at the start. Graham said he didn’t think the team had a realistic shot at qualifying for state tournament play by avoiding the nine-team league’s bottom three slots. Scalia told his players after Wednesday’s practice that he’d left their first skate in a funk.

“I was very discouraged,” the coach said. “I had talked with Russ and we had all these systems we were going to learn, and then we couldn’t even complete 10 percent of our passes. I had to throw everything out.”

Scalia went back to basics, and he didn’t care if his players thought it was lame. Here’s the stance needed to make a basic, flat pass while standing still. Forehand. Backhand. Now try it while moving around. The same went for skating strides, shooting, bodychecking and faceoffs.

While Scalia taught or oversaw a drill, Teller would move pucks into place for the next one or pull aside individual players for 30-second tutorials, either spoken or while using a white board. Sloppy technique was undone. The teenagers, realizing that paying attention was making them better performers, abandoned long-held habits of gazing around the rink or chattering among themselves in moments of down time.

“They listen to every word, which is unusual for 14-year olds,” Graham said.

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Scalia moved to Ottawa from Montreal when he was 10, and his speech has a hint of French inflection. His mother, Maria, is a retired educator, and his father, Vito, works for the Canadian Blood Services. His sister, Jenna, is a emergency nurse, and the family is rooted in the Catholic religion.

“I’m a man of faith, and I try to help everyone around me and help myself in the process,” said Scalia, who was a diminutive playmaking forward before quitting hockey at age 18 and putting on 40 pounds of muscle in order to make the University of Ottawa’s rowing team. “That’s what gives me drive. If I can help young boys mature and become better people, then I will have done my job.”

Scalia, who rents an apartment in a refurbished school, begins his day with an early morning gym workout. He’s been at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice since 2015 and hopes to defend his Ph.D. thesis by the end of this year. His daily work and study is focused on epidemiology and health services research, and he’s a teaching assistant for a health communications class.

Graham knew a year ago that the HHA would need a Bantam Green boss for the 2017-18 campaign. Almost all of the organization’s coaches are parents, but getting them to tackle teams of teenagers isn’t always easy or smooth. Graham thought Scalia was young enough to appeal to boys for whom indifference is an art form, but that he also possessed the requisite distance and edge to keep them in line.

“A lot of people told me these guys were going to have attitudes, and they wouldn’t listen at all,” recalled Scalia, whose team was seeded fifth in a six-team field for states. “But some of these kids are going to play high school hockey, and they’re going to be leaders on those teams because they have such integrity. They want to be the best they can be, and they’re there for their teammates.”

Scalia trounces his players in wind sprints. He also performs on-ice pushups with the group at the end of practice. Earlier this season, after his troops left the ice, he spied an undersized youngster from a lower-level team at the other end of the rink. For an additional half-hour, Scalia tutored the boy on shooting, dispensing a stream of positive feedback.

“I thought he would be a good role model, and he’s been every bit of that and more,” Graham said. “He gives the kids a vision of what they can be in hockey and the real world.”

Scalia plans to one day become a practicing physician, which will require years of more study, and he’s not sure if his schedule will allow him to coach next season. Regardless, he’s clearly made a lifetime mark on his players during the last five months.

“This has been my favorite year of hockey,” Trimble said.

Said Duany: “He’s done so much academically, but he’s still an amazing coach. It’s great he can do both.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.