It has been a long time coming but professional hockey is finally coming back to Woo Town.
On October 23 the Worcester Railers hockey club will make its return to the DCU Center for its home opening game of the 2021-2022 season against the Maine Mariners.
After a false start last season and a season cut short a year prior, it certainly hasn’t been easy for the Railers to get back on the ice. When speaking to those in charge of getting the team back in front of its fans, you can sense a collective nervous anticipation and excitement. A lot of work has gone into putting this Railers team together, and not only is the expectation level high for the club to perform well, there is an expectation to just see the club simply skate again.
The Railers’ 2019-2020 season ended the same way it did for a lot of other sports teams that year: a screeching halt. Because of COVID, the Railers 2019-2020 season was cut seven games short, ending on March 7, 2020. The Railers players haven’t hit the ice together since.
The team tried to get things going for the 2020-2021 season, but eventually had to back out because of numerous challenges posed by COVID, including state mandates not allowing fans in the DCU Center building and the team not being able to play the two Canadian clubs in the ECHL because of the borders still being closed.
“We were hoping to get a 25 percent capacity, if we could’ve gotten 25 percent capacity, we could’ve opened our doors and made things work,” says Railers Head Coach and General Manager David Cunniff. “Everything is attendance driven. We don’t have T.V. deals, so without fans being allowed to come into the building, we weren’t going to (be able to) pay our players and pay the staff.”
The Railers club wasn’t the only one that had to opt out of last season, others like Cincinnati and Toledo did as well, according to Cunniff.
Railers President Stephanie Ramey says that between fans not being allowed inside and the travel roadblocks with the Canadian teams, it was just a “recipe for disaster.”
“And beyond that, the DCU center became a field hospital, so that presented a whole other set of challenges right there,” she adds. “The idea with minor league sports is that we’re a business that really depends on our fanbase.”
Making it through the storm
The Railers might have been down but the players and those leading the organization weren’t. Instead of disappearing into the blue until the DCU Center’s doors opened again, the team made good on its dedication to the community and stayed actively involved in helping the people of Worcester.
“Our mission for (that) year was to keep our community initiative intact and create ones that were unique to answer some of the needs of the pandemic,” says Railers COO Michael Myers.
For the third consecutive year, the Railers were named the recipient of the East Coast Hockey League Community Service Award thanks to its many efforts. When the team was shut down, it organized a drive-thru food pantry in partnership with Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, worked with youth hockey programs to help replenish food pantries as part of Hockey Checks Hunger, and also organized a drive-thru teddy bear toss to benefit Friendly House in Worcester.
“We really haven’t missed a beat or slowed down it seems,” says Ramey. “We were very creative during that time and it helps keep us very visible and reinforce the idea that the Worcester Railers is a community first organization.”
Back to Business
The Railers’ new season will officially start on October 22 when they play the Maine Mariners at Cross Insurance Arena in Maine, and that date cannot come soon enough for the team’s leadership.
As 2021-2022 season begins to take shape, there are still awkward details because of COVID. The team won’t actually be together for the first time until October 10 when the players have their physicals taken and then skate together. The first Railers team practice will be the following day on October 11, and there will be two exhibition games against Maine on October 15 and 16.
For Cunniff, he cannot wait to see the team he has organized on paper finally come together for real.
“I’ve waited a long time to be a GM and coach and I did a lot of work last summer building the team and putting the team in place and the reward is getting to watch the guys play,” says Cunniff, who will be entering his first full season as a head coach after previously holding an assistant coach position with the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Ramey is in a similar boat. She joined the team as president in May of 2020 and hasn’t seen a puck drop once since then.
“It has been sort of funny to lead this team through this very tumultuous time and still haven’t seen them on the ice,” she says. “There is no one more excited for this team to play than me. I’m so happy that it is happening now.”
A live pre-event party will be held on Commercial Street the day of the home opener in conjunction with Off The Rails and will feature live music before the game to help hype everyone up, as if they need anymore hyping.
The Railers aren’t just coming back for the sake of coming back, though. The team is coming back to win games. Although a winning season has eluded the Railers, Cunniff has faith in his team and is looking forward to guiding his players onto a successful run.
“As a GM and head coach we’re not just looking for the best individuals or players, we’re looking to put the best team together,” Cunniff says. “So the culture that we develop–the team camaraderie–I think we have a really good group of guys that are selfless, they don’t have egos, they’re going to play for each other, they’re going to play for the logo on the front of their shirt. I can’t wait to just get them together and watch them gel and blend and turn into the team that I think they can be.”
“We’re really excited with the group of talent that we have and that Cunniff has been able to put together,” says Myers. He points to “really good local talent” like “Southie kid” Liam Coughlin at forward, forward Jordan Smotherman of Westoboro, defenseman Nick Albano of Beverly, and more.
Cunniff expects a full house at the home opener barring any other state changes to attendance mandates concerning COVID between now and then. As for the fans, Ramey says they can expect an increase in access to things like hand sanitizer at the DCU Center and can expect the Railers organization to “stay in tune with CDC guidance, the state of Massachusetts, and the city of Worcester.” There will also of course be “all of the exciting elements of minor league sports,” like interactive entertainment, giveaways and more.
“Families have had so much added stress on them, and its opportunities like sporting events that allow the general public to take a breath and celebrate together. That’s the beauty of sports,” Ramey says. “It’s the little kid in their glory seeing Trax the mascot, the parents doing the chicken dance, and the excitement of cheering on your team when they score a goal. These are all things that make you feel good. This team really matters here, and I know people are excited for their return.”
For more, visit: railershc.com/