BREWER, Maine — Al Liberatore (Coach Lib even to the people who haven’t met him yet) has been the face of encouragement for many of the young ice skaters and hockey players in Brewer Youth Hockey.
Sitting in the stands at Penobscot Ice Arena after a recent Learn to Skate/Learn to Play session, Liberatore smiled as he greeted young kids with light fist bumps and waves.
Liberatore was in the stands because he lost his left leg from the knee down in May 2010 due to a blood clot. He had it replaced with a computerized leg programmed for walking and skating, although he still needs a walker when he is on the ice.
His enthusiasm for hockey, though, remains high.
He thanked the kids’ parents and they thanked him. He said hello to coaches, instructors and their aides and to kids he taught to skate who now are playing hockey.
It appeared almost everyone in the arena knew Liberatore.
But Liberatore, who spent most of the last 15 years teaching young people how to skate, is quick to point out that keeping a sport, especially hockey, going in a community takes more than one person.
“It took a whole community, all those people — from the board, from the parents, from the kids — to make it happen,” he said. “I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time to drive the bus for a while.”
Youth hockey takes a lot of volunteers.
“We have 13 instructors in that [Learn to Skate/Learn to Play] program alone [for 92 skaters],” said George Bishop, who is Brewer Youth Hockey’s vice president for instruction.
One of them is Bishop’s daughter Janessa, who is 9.
Janessa Bishop was the reason her dad became involved.
“My daughter wanted to try [skating] when she was 4,” said Bishop. “I sat on the benches [watching] for two weeks. Finally, I said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’”
He asked to help “and I’ve been out there ever since,” he said.
And Janessa is following her dad.
“This year, she decided not to play, but she would help coach in the walker division,” he said.
Liberatore is familiar with that. His daughter Maria, a junior at Husson University majoring in physical therapy, has taken over the Learn to Skate program.
“Last year was his first year [not being a Learn to Skate instructor]. This year I had the chance to take his place and I took the opportunity,” said Maria, who had been helping her father “since I was 7 or 8 years old.”
Bishop is happy to see more women becoming involved.
Lindsey Mills, an Arlington, Mass., native, moved to Brewer less than a month ago to take a job as a reporter for WVII-TV in Bangor.
“I’ve been playing hockey since I was 8 years old,” she wrote in response to an email.
Mills played through high school, then helped start a club team at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., in conjunction with Salem State.
“Since I graduated in May, the teams have split and [Endicott] has their own women’s ice hockey club team,” said Mills.
She wanted to continue her involvement in hockey, found the Brewer Youth Hockey website and contacted president Katie Doak.
“I was thrilled to hear back right away from Katie and then George,” she said.
She’s feeling more comfortable in her new surroundings.
“At a board meeting Monday night to discuss the potential of starting a U-12 girls program,” said Mills, “for the first time since I moved up here, I felt a little bit at home.”
Bishop sees this as a positive move for the growth of girls hockey in the area.
“It’s rare, especially to have an experienced woman” who can be a role model, said Bishop.
David Shedd, the Brewer High School hockey coach, worked alongside Coach Liberatore years ago, and many of the players on his team, including his son Michael (a junior on the Brewer High team), went through the program.
Shedd didn’t exactly volunteer, he was recruited, sort of.
Shedd grew up in Millinocket, lived in Bangor for a few years, then moved to Brewer, where his oldest son entered Learn to Skate at age 6. He was watching one day when he got the call from Tony Valley.
“He yelled, ‘Shedd. Get out here with your son,’” recalled Shedd.
As his kids got older, Shedd decided he wanted to coach. After next year, that core group that he started with will complete their high school careers.
“There are very few hockey coaches who get to see their players all the way through,” he said.
Liberatore believes helping kids learn to skate aids more than just the kids.
“It develops not only kids but coaches because a good coach remembers what it was like to be small,” he said.
“You take a kid who’s just learning to walk, put him on skates and then send him out there,” continued Liberatore, “and he looks at all that space, and it’s daunting.”
He used humor, discipline and especially praise to help the kids learn.
He taught some and coached from Mites through Bantams for years, starting when his son Tony, now 35, was 7 years old. After Maria finished with Learn to Skate almost 15 years ago, he stuck with that.
That’s rare, according to Bishop.
“[Coach Lib] is an exception to the rule, by far,” said Bishop. “He’s like a fixture.”
Liberatore, now 63, is just happy to have contributed.
“The reward comes from … when they take their helmet off,” said Liberatore. “These little kids, 4, 5 years old, they’re happy, they accomplished something.”