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For the Woolner family hockey is a way of life

Hockey isn’t just a game for eleven-year-old Owen Woolner and his family – it’s a family bond.

Woolner has been skating since he was three years old. While some never mastered the skill, Owen had a built-in advantage to begin his journey in ice hockey.

His father, Dr. Tim Woolner, was born and raised in Canada and was a hockey star in his youth. He grew up in Heidelburg, Ontario, where hockey is king, and the population is so sparse that Little Falls would be seen as “the big city.”

“Heidelburg is two and half hours northwest of Toronto,” Dr. Woolner said. “It has less than 500 people, and you would have to go to the general store to get your mail”.

The elder Woolner recalls the lengths his teams would go to play their games.

“People forget how big Ontario is. You could drive twenty-four hours north and still be in Ontario. Thunder Bay (located on the shore of Lake Superior in northwest Ontario just above the Minnesota border) was the long haul, which was an eighteen-hour bus ride.”

“It got so cold once that we had to leave the bus running during the game so the diesel wouldn’t freeze up,” Dr. Woolner said with a chuckle.

While Dr. Woolner was well-versed in hockey from a young age, Owen’s mother, Caren, had to learn the game on the fly. Hailing from Long Island, Caren had attended a few Islanders and Rangers games but didn’t experience youth hockey. When Owen was five months old, the Woolners became Utica Comets season ticket holders, and it was then Caren says she was “immediately hooked.”

“It’s been a learning curve for me, but I’m pretty good now,” Mrs. Woolner said about her experience as a “hockey mom.” “I get his skates sharpened every week, but he’s so independent now when it comes to that kind of stuff. It’s much easier than when he was six. Just growing and watching him, it’s been pretty awesome, and I’ve learned a lot about the game”.

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The hockey mom title extends to sports mom, as Owen also plays baseball while his younger sister Abby plays basketball and is a cheerleader as well. Although Abby does not play hockey, there is still a competitive streak between her and her brother on the ice.

“If she sees Owen going fast, she wants to go fast, too,” the Woolner matriarch said with a grin.

Owen Woolner and his father Tim celebrate a 2022 championship banner. Photo credit: Caren Woolner.

As for Owen, he began playing hockey at the age of four with the Utica Jr. Comets Learn to Play (LTP) program. He then went on to the Whitestown Wolfpack LTP, Clinton Youth Hockey, and the Utica Jr. Comets program. He is now playing for the 12U Oneida County Hockey Club team of the Snowbelt Hockey League. He also played ball hockey in the Mohawk Valley Hockey Club youth program.

His favorite players are “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky and Connor Bedard. Like his favorite players, Owen is a center and is off to a great start, with sixteen goals scored so far this season.

Owen describes his game as “trying to be pretty much everything. The shooter, trying to get back on D, covering for my defense, and I’m a good puck carrier. If I’m too tired, I try to go to the bench, but I don’t like to do it when we’re in the offensive zone when we’re trying to keep possession and win the game.” At eleven years old, Owen Woolner already sounds like he could be a hockey analyst on ESPN.

His father has noticed Owen’s game shines off the ice as well.

“One of the things is whenever you get to the rink, even before you’re on the ice, even before you’re dressed, whenever you see your teammates, I always see you smile,” a beaming Dr. Woolner said while looking at his son. “He’s one of those kids that likes the camaraderie of being part of a team.”

He also wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, as after his playing days are over, the younger Woolner wants to be a hockey coach.

The father-son on-ice relationship

Caren recalled her son’s first time on the ice without his father. “That was his first night out without Tim in pads,” she recalled. “It was actually hilarious. I couldn’t even believe he put the equipment on – he was four.”

Dr. Woolner began coaching his son in Clinton Youth Hockey when Owen was seven. After three seasons in Clinton, the Woolners moved over to the Utica Jr. Comets program, where Dr. Woolner also served as an assistant coach. Like most parents, Dr. Woolner jumped at the chance to coach his son but noted it’s not easy having your dad as a coach – especially at a young age.

“The hardest thing for him (Owen) is when to separate me being a father and me being a coach. That’s difficult because I’m telling him what to do, but I’m telling all of the players to do this. I’m all of the players’ coach. I have to tell you just like I tell everybody else.”

Indoors or outdoors, Owen Woolner loves playing hockey. Photo credit: Caren Woolner.

Ever the watchful mom, Caren has a closeup observation between her hockey player son and her hockey coach husband.

“All the kids who have parents on the coaching staff, it’s a tough road for them, but it’s also awesome. During those COVID years, parents weren’t even allowed in the rink. You had to let your kid just go in at six or seven years old. He (Tim) spent hours tying skates because the kids had to get ready. It was very comforting for me to know that he was there with him (Owen) because it made me feel a whole lot better. And with him just watching out for all of the kids because that’s the kind of coach that he is.”

Alone, but not really

Owen Woolner is the only player on his team from Little Falls. Although Owen does not have any classmates who can relate to his hockey team experience, it is not a problem for the Woolners. They have turned it into a life experience.

“Youth sports is a building block to life,” Dr. Woolner said regarding what youth sports can teach young people. For Owen, he has learned how to make friends with other players from other teams all over the region. One of those opponents wound up being a teammate of his this season.

At a Utica Comets game this past Saturday, Owen and his current teammate Mason found out they had a dustup of sorts when they were on opposing teams last season. Owen was on a breakaway, and Mason threw his stick at him, trying to stop his future teammate from scoring (it temporarily worked, but Owen scored on the penalty shot he was awarded as a result). A year later, the boys had a good laugh about it and are now really good friends.

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“It’s been nice in that respect, meeting and continuing to see the same families and watching the boys and girls all come up together,” Caren Woolner said about meeting and spending time with people from outside of their home community.

While their son adores the game, his parents see the big picture of his interactions with others and what that has given Owen.

“It shows him a bigger world socially and also of sports,” Caren said. “Being able to go in and meet all of these people from different areas and continue the relationships to this day, I think that’s been the best. Like the other day, when he saw that kid from Center State (another youth hockey organization based in Morrisville), you knew immediately that they knew each other. It was adorable, actually, and that’s what we love to see, having that camaraderie.”

Goals, points, and championships are great, but Owen Woolner’s parents want just one thing from their son’s youth hockey experience.

“As long as he’s on the ice and happy, that’s what I care about.”

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