Challenger Winter Classic a Great Day for Hockey in Avon

This week’s Coast Star, a weekly newspaper covering events in towns in southern Monmouth County, New Jersey, had a great writeup this week by Scott Yunker about the Challenger Winter Classic.

The Challenger Winter Classic is an annual event that this year took place on Super Bowl Sunday. It pits the USA Warriors, a team made up of military veterans from across the country (most of the players in this year’s contest hailed from the Washington, DC area according to Yunker), against the Brick Stars, a team made up of special-needs players from the Shore area.

Attending the game, which took place at Avon Pond, an outdoor rink in Avon-by-the-Sea, were Devils alumni Bruce Driver and Grant Marshall, along with mascot NJ Devil.

Also in attendance were many local high school hockey teams and coaches. Yunker counted Wall, St. Rose, Point Boro, Manasquan, Lacey Township, Christian Brothers Academy and Central Regional high school all having representatives at the game. Many were there supporting friends, siblings or even teammates on the Brick Stars, according to Yunker.

Playing for the Stars was Eric Czaplinski, a player recently profiled by the Devils on social media who lives with cerebral palsy and manages the Lacey high school team. He recently suited up for the Lions and got to play in a varsity game as a senior and scored a goal.

The Stars, who are usually clad in Brick’s traditional green, wore special replica jerseys of the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team that won gold in Lake Placid, New York for the game.

As mentioned, many of the members of the Stars have connections to other local hockey players. Yunker shared a story about some high senior hockey players from Wall whose connections go very deep.

Yunker interviewed Zach Ruzell, Will Harrington and Gio Crepaldi. For Ruzell, Yunker said that “he and his friends assist Brick Star coaches in mentoring players at the Ocean Ice Palace in Brick Township on weekends” during the hockey season.

For Harrington, his brother Ryan plays for the Stars, as does Gio’s brother Paulie. Yunker notes that Paulie and Gio’s mother, Dina Crepaldi “is a co-founder and co-director of the program.”

Yunker quoted Harrington as saying that his brother “loves it. He has his equipment out the night before, every single night. He gets up at 6:30 in the morning to get dressed for practice.” Gio Crepaldi said: “We started when he was 8 years old, and it took off from there. He went from barely being able to skate … to having his own team. It’s awesome.”

For their part, Marshall and Driver had a few words about the event. Marshall told Yunker: “It’s the consummate team sport,” referring to hockey, “It’s an enjoyable time for us to spend time with anyone that’s playing hockey.”

Driver added “It’s always exciting for us. [Brick Stars co-founder] Alex DePalma has done such an amazing, amazing job. He’s a good human being, a good soul that wants to give back … We’re proud to be a part of it.”

The Brick Stars Challenger program has been going strong for 10 years now, according to Yunker, and it is showing no signs of slowing down. The Challenger Winter Classic is a great Shore-area, and New Jersey, hockey tradition and it never fails to bring a smile to the face of any local hockey fan.

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