By Jim Smith
In 1973, the Theodore Roosevelt ice hockey team earned recognition as a varsity sport and because of that recognition, the Kent State Ice Arena has been a special place for Rough Rider players, coaches, students and the Kent community for five decades.
And the history of the program, celebrating its 50th season in 2023-24, is deep with tradition and passion.
Bernie Hovey succeeded the program’s first coach, Joe Habraken, in 1976 and believed he was hired as a coach to “make it a bonafide sport that the team could be proud of.”
Without question, Hovey’s teams, during his 14 seasons of coaching, achieved that objective.
After a second-place finish in the Ohio High School Athletic Association state tournament in 1981, Roosevelt solidified their standing as a respected program collecting a state championship via a 4-3 overtime victory against Sylvania Northview the next year.
Hovey recalls that each of the team’s goals in that title game were scored by a member of a quartet of senior players, who had lettered in each of their four seasons. They were the first group to have played hockey during their entire four years of high school.
Off the ice, Hovey, a self-proclaimed “bit of a disciplinarian,” reminded his players that they were to represent Roosevelt High School “with class” and had “high expectations of them both in and out of the ice arena and in and out of school.”
Kirk Koennecke owns the distinction of being the first Roosevelt hockey alum to be selected head coach. Koennecke guided the Rough Riders from 2000 through 2002.
“I was so proud to return to Kent as a teacher and a coach. It’s because I understand that history,” Koennecke, now CEO and Superintendent of the Indian Hill Village School District, proclaimed.
“This (Roosevelt hockey experience) is really a fraternity of families,” Koennecke added. “When you spend that much time in that arena together, you get to know these families and their core values better than probably most people the rest of your life. The fraternity of hockey, and the support that comes from it; you never lose that.”
“The culture is infectious,” Koennecke continued. “Anybody who gets drawn into it, it becomes this thing that you just become passionate about over time.”
Koennecke also played a role in the future succession of Roosevelt head coaches,
encouraging and mentoring Ben Barlow and Brad Edwards.
Barlow is not only the longest-tenured coach, having guided the team for 18 seasons, he may also have the greatest overall connection with the program having participated in some fashion with the program since eighth grade.
After an 8-19-0 record in his initial season (2002-03) as bench boss, Barlow’s teams proceeded to surpass the 20-win mark in each of the next four seasons.
“Those four years helped catapult us as to where we wanted to go over the next decade and a half,” acknowledged Barlow. “Nothing was possible without the incredible run of players that put on the Roosevelt hockey jersey during that time. It was unbelievable, the talent,” professed Barlow.
That journey would result in a 292-241-20 career coaching record for Barlow, earning a winning percentage near 53 percent.
Barlow acknowledges his assistant coaches Mike Geiger, Tom Fisher and Brent Pfeiffer for instilling camaraderie among the team, connecting current players with previous players and expanding community involvement.
Roosevelt’s current coach, Brad Edwards, may have coached the team during the program’s most difficult period: The Covid Pandemic.
Faced with the closure of the university’s ice arena, Roosevelt was forced to move its “home” ice nearly 20 miles north to The Pond in Chagrin Falls.
Edward’s belief was to provide as much normalcy as possible for the players during the experience and believes the team learned tenacity and perseverance during the ordeal.
“Kids learned that you have to cherish every moment. Every day we get to put our jersey on is important,” avowed Edwards.
Through the past 50 years, Roosevelt has won titles at each division in the Greater Cleveland High School Hockey League, captured a pair of Baron Cup titles, won numerous in-season tournaments and has had a plethora of players earn various league awards and recognition.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”
Challenging his teams by creating a schedule replete with top-caliber teams, Koennecke shared President’s Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech to inspire his team to play at their highest level.
“We went through a couple of seasons when we didn’t win as many games as some parents would have liked to see,” explained Koennecke, “but we were playing against teams from all over Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan that were top-caliber teams. Our kids would lose a game, but they knew they played at the highest level of high-school hockey.”
President Roosevelt’s discourse became a staple in Rough Rider hockey.
“There is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Later, seeking a motivational tool for his players, Barlow expanded the players’ connection to the high school’s namesake by initiating the tradition of awarding “The Teddy Hat” to a player after a Roosevelt victory.
Barlow once explained the award, saying, “The Teddy Hat is not simply awarded to a player that scores the most goals. It is a recognition that holds greater importance and is all-encompassing.
“A player that gave everything they possibly could in that moment and was willing to do what it took to help the entire team; help the greater good and help the entire team achieve their goals,” Barlow added. “The player that everybody was able to observe gave 100 percent effort and was a leader.”
An interesting twist to the awarding of “The Hat” is that the Roosevelt coaching staff selects only the first player of the season to receive the honor. Subsequent recipients are chosen by the player currently in possession of the hat.
Today, the award is presented to a player after each game, regardless of the outcome.
Metz, Wenninger, Madey, Hamilton, Burroughs, Bennett, Rainey, Huffnagle, Manning, Smith, Fisher, Heim, Harrod, Butler, Grootegoed, Montemayor and Boyle are several of the names that appear often in the Rough Riders’ record book and on occasion are a family’s second generation of player to skate for Roosevelt.
A Roosevelt player achieving record-setting recognition is secondary to the experience garnered as a Rough Rider hockey player.
Edwards offers, “Roosevelt hockey is about camaraderie and brotherhood. It’s more than hockey. Roosevelt hockey to me is where I spent some of the best times of my life and I want these kids and the community to have some great memories to look back on.”
As for the future of Rough Rider hockey, Edwards wants those leaders to,
“Continue the Roosevelt hockey legacy and that is tradition, hard work, discipline,
integrity, dealing with adversity and tenacity.”
• Jim Smith has been writing about Roosevelt hockey for more than a decade and
continues to research the program’s history for future publication.
• Follow Jim Smith on X (formerly Twitter) @BlueLineNotes.