New Barrington hockey coach Croke reflects on time at East Providence

City native moves from new co-op to established Eagles program ·

EAST PROVIDENCE — With bittersweet emotion Kevin Croke chose not to remain a part of the newly-formed cooperative hockey program between East Providence and Lincoln High Schools, opting instead to take over as head coach of neighboring Barrington in time for the 2016-17 season.

Croke, a city native, spent the last five winters behind the East Providence bench, leading the Townies to a pair of Division III championships including his first season, '11-12, and two years later, '13-14. Given the chance to stay as associate head coach with the E.P.-Lincoln co-op, he instead applied for and was hired to fill the Barrington vacancy coincidentally left open by the resignation of another city resident, Derek Borek.

"When the co-op happened it left a lot of things up in the air, but it was going to be Lincoln's program. They were the host school and at about the same time the Barrington job opened up. It was a tough decision, but I'm probably not going to get many more shots at being a head coach at my age (55), so I figured I'd try something new," Croke explained.

At Barrington, Croke gets the opportunity to test his skill at the Division I level, just a notch below the Championship Division where private school behemoths Mount St. Charles, LaSalle and Hendricken are challenged by Smithfield and the Cranston co-op. The Eagles have remained very competitive in the D-I ranks in recent years, reaching the finals five times and winning the league crown once (2012-13).

"Hockey tends to be a suburban sport now. You look at the communities where it's thriving, like Barrington, Cumberland, Cranston West, Smithfield, and hockey is an expensive sport. People talk about the equipment being costly, but it's really the ice time. There's just too few sheets available in Rhode Island," Croke said.

That lack of access is one of the reasons why the number of players at EPHS has dwindled to the point where entering into a cooperative became a necessity. Croke pointed to the privatization in 2009 of municipally-owned Lynch Arena in Pawtucket as likely the last straw.

"What really killed it was Lynch going private. It's great that it's still open, but now it's focused on high-end, blue chip programs. And forget about what it did to us, look at what it did to Tolman. That program died in like three years," Croke added.

Tolman was most recently itself in an informal co-op with East Providence in '14-15, but that didn't go well. No Tigers remained on the team by the end of the season and now the hockey program at the school, which won titles in D-III and made the final in D-II in the early aughts, no longer exists in any form.

Fortunately for East Providence, at least for the moment, that isn't the case. Five current Townies and one other charter school student from the city are part of the co-op with Lincoln this winter. As for Croke, he takes over a Barrington team he said "looked really good" in its Injury Fund game earlier in the week and one he expects to make a run at the D-I championship.

As for his time coaching his alma mater, Croke will hold only fond memories of leading the Townies even as the program began to falter, culminating in last year's winless effort with barely enough players to actually skate a side.

"It was a great, great time. I had tremendous support from the administration. The coaches I got to work with were tremendous. But it's all about the players. I had some tremendous student-athletes come through the program," Croke added. "There's only one senior (Cam Maxwell) and one junior (Colin Feeney) who I coached, but it broke my heart to leave those guys. It was a difficult decision, but I still wanted to be a head coach and it just wasn't going to be there with the co-op."


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