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Merrick teen pursues hockey amid tournament freeze

When the pandemic put his dreams on thin ice, JFK student moved states away

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Ryan Friedman, of Merrick, said hockey has always been his passion, and his pursuit for competing in the major leagues has persisted despite current circumstances. When the Covid-19 pandemic iced out tournaments from taking place in Nassau, Friedman migrated to Vermont to join a competitive team.

Now, the 17-year-old is one of the youngest players on the Vermont Lumberjacks, which competes in the Eastern Hockey League, an American Tier III Junior ice hockey league.

The John F. Kennedy High School junior first hit the ice as a toddler. While practicing at Newbridge Arena in Bellmore and IceWorks in Syosset — the practice facility for the New York Islanders — growing up, Friedman envisioned himself competing in the NHL. By middle school, he was playing for Bellmore-Merrick’s junior varsity Bulldogs ice hockey team as well as a travel squad that competed throughout the tri-state area.

Just before the pandemic reared its ugly head, the Bulldogs won their Nassau County championship game on March 12, 2020, against Massapequa. “Around that time, a lot of teams were canceling because that was the start of the pandemic,” Friedman’s father, Eric, said. “They won the championships, and the next day everything shut down.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on March 15, 2020, that all Nassau County public schools would be closed to limit the spread of Covid-19, resulting in the cancellation of extracurriculars and sports. That August, Nassau’s council of school superintendents voted unanimously to postpone the fall high school sports season, with the aim to condense all sports later in 2021.

While many local hockey teams suspended play, the Bulldogs continued with limitations. But during the first game of the season, Friedman broke his collarbone, which sidelined him for more than a month. By the second game the team folded for the season because it didn't have enough active players to compete, he explained.

After recovering from his injury, Friedman was desperate to hit the ice, he said. He practiced at local arenas on his own, but with no teams competing, he knew he had to pivot.

Friedman researched active junior league teams that weren’t restricted by the pandemic. He sent a text to Jack Lowry, a coach with the Vermont Lumberjacks, which got the puck moving.

“I just told him I was interested in playing for the team, and he said he’d love [for] me to call him,” Friedman recalled. “We went over everything and he said there was a spot open this season. He told me to come down here, and that was it.”

In mid-January, Friedman packed a weekend bag and headed for New Hampshire, where the team had been practicing since October. Shortly after, he gained a spot on the roster. After returning home and saying goodbye to his friends and family, Friedman moved in with his new teammates states away. He will play for the Lumberjacks for the next three years.

“I love junior hockey,” Friedman said. “The pace is much faster than the school team, more than what I was expecting. These are bigger guys, much older — I’m not used to the speed.” But there’s been a benefit, too. “We have a lot more time on the ice, so I’m able to get better and better,” he added.

Friedman is currently attending classes remotely, and if he keeps his grades up, he is nearly guaranteed a seat on a competitive college team. If the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District shifts to a full, in-person learning model in September, Eric said, Friedman would be enrolled in online schooling specifically for student-athletes.

Friedman is expected to return to Merrick in April after the playoffs. Then, this summer, he will head back to Vermont to resume play. While he’s grateful for the opportunity, Friedman acknowledged that many of his fellow athletes back home in Nassau are unable to compete themselves.

“With games cancelled, it’s hard — they have one practice a week if they’re lucky,” he said. “I know some of these guys . . . want to play junior hockey, but they can’t get better because there’s not a lot of practice.”

Eric said he’s incredibly proud of his son for doing what he loves and living out his dreams. “I miss him, but he’s very independent and very driven and passionate about playing hockey,” he said. “He just has a lot of passion and a lot of heart. This is his dream, and I’m letting him go for it.”