Saturday, May 18, 2024

Catron follows uncle’s lead to Plattsburgh

Aaron Catron sports a replica of his uncle, Mark Catron’s, Plattsburgh Pioneers hockey sweater.

 

By Collin Bolebruch

A young man from Delaware finds himself in Plattsburgh. Aaron Catron has been trained to play his whole life and his future is bright. He’s now with one of the most prestigious Division III programs ever — the Plattsburgh Cardinals.

In 1984, 40 years ago, another young man from Delaware lived in the same city. Mark Catron was naive and hungry to prove himself in the harsh world of junior ice hockey. He fought to be noticed on the worst juniors team of all time — the Plattsburgh Pioneers.

The sport of hockey brought a man and his nephew to the same city, 400 miles from home, to become not just professionals, but men.

“You have to not only figure out hockey, but now it’s the first time you’re on your own,” Mark said.

 

MARK

North Country hockey first joined the national stage in the early 1980s. 

Team USA defeated the USSR in the greatest game of hockey ever played for the gold medal in Lake Placid in 1980. Plattsburgh State’s fledgling program earned its first NCAA Championship berths in 1981 and 1982. 

The sport lit the region on fire.

Simultaneously, the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League, a Canadian juniors league, was eying its first expansion into the United States. Plattsburgh, just 60 miles from Montréal, was a top candidate.

Mark was playing U18 hockey for the Seattle Breakers when he got wind of the news.

The league introduced the Plattsburgh Pioneers in 1984, made up completely of American players. Without an expansion draft, the Pioneers could sign players from a few different states, not including Mark’s home state of Delaware, he recalled. That didn’t stop him — Mark tried out under his friend’s New Jersey address.

He was one of the first to sign on. The team struggled to find talent beyond the first few signees.

“Most expansion teams aren’t very good, but at least it would get publicity as an all-American team,” Mark said. “It seemed like a real hard thing of getting quality players.”

Mark, just 18 years old, was relocating without a billet. The area was completely new to him, and the locals were already attached to the Cardinals. He was immediately welcomed by the city.

“The guys loved Plattsburgh. The people were awesome,” Mark said. “We had a lot of fun there — not so much in the rink, but out of the rink, getting along with people and making a lot of friends.”

Mark lived with his teammates, now comparing the situation to a college dorm. In a house full of teenagers, Mark had to learn how to live on his own.

“You were thrown into a living situation where you have to cook for yourself, do your laundry,” Mark said.

The Pioneers first hit the ice at Plattsburgh State’s Field House — now named Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena — because Crete Memorial Civic Center, its intended home, wasn’t ready yet. 

The team’s debut game ended in overtime, losing 6-7 to the Hull Olympiques on September 15, 1984. The matchup featured a bench-clearing brawl that included Mark at the bottom of a dogpile.

“That first game we played was really a fun one,” Mark said. “I wish we were that competitive all the way through.”

Plattsburgh lost the next 16 games by a combined score of 49-178, moved rinks and folded before November. The team has since been hailed as the worst ever.

The Pioneers and Mark faced plenty of future NHL talent, including Jimmy Carson, Claude Lemieux and Stéphane Richer.

Mark notched one of his two goals of the season against the Granby Bisons at the Ronnie B. on October 11. It was a score he never forgot — the victim was future Hockey Hall of Famer and greatest goalie of all time Patrick Roy.

“He was really good then, but you never knew he was going to be what he was,” Mark said.

Mark, like his teammates, was playing to be recognized. When the team folded, he signed with the Virginia Lancers of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League.

“I told Aaron, ‘We were the worst junior team in the history of junior teams,’” Mark said. “‘But there were still four of us that got out of there and made a living out of it.’”

 

AARON

Aaron first hit the ice away from home in Indiana.

“I don’t remember putting on my skates for the first time,” Aaron said.

There, Mark, and his father, Matt, owned a rink that hosted Indiana Jr. Ice.

“Aaron would literally spend his day on the ice. That was our babysitter. Threw him on the ice,” Mark said. “That’s all he did. He was that obsessed.”

When Aaron was growing up, Mark landed a job as the head coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Little Flyers of the Eastern Hockey League. Aaron found himself in Mark’s camps both as a volunteer and participant.

“His coaching was greatly extended to me,” Aaron said.

Eventually, Aaron landed a roster spot with the Little Flyers, playing in two games for the club in 2021. He then signed with the Boston Jr. Bruins of the National Collegiate Development Conference in the United States Premier Hockey League.

Aaron played 96 games with the Junior Bruins. When his second season in Boston ended in 2023, he was brought on by Philadelphia for the playoffs.

“It was fun for me to coach him in his last games of youth hockey,” Mark said. “I loved coaching him, having grown up from a baby and then the whole way up.”

Mark made some calls and reached Plattsburgh Head Coach Steve Moffat, trying to put him on to Aaron, knowing Steve liked players like Aaron — fast and skillful.

Steve and Aaron communicated, and there was a time when Aaron was ready to move on from Plattsburgh as an option. Both sides ultimately decided Aaron would be a Cardinal.

“(Mark) never told me he played in Plattsburgh until right before I committed,” Aaron said. “I actually never visited.”

Mark thought Plattsburgh was Aaron’s best choice — a storied program and a great community. Aaron would be a first-year for the 2023-24 season.

Though Aaron, now 22 years old, was a little older than his uncle when Mark arrived at Plattsburgh, this was the first time he’d be on his own. Aaron is spending this season on-campus with his teammates.

“The guys really made me comfortable,” Aaron said. “It’s such a nice area.”

Steve likes to play his first-years, and Aaron took advantage of his opportunities. In 28 games, Aaron scored six goals and six assists for 12 total points. His future as a Cardinal is bright.

Off the ice, Aaron’s come to like Plattsburgh and the fanbase. The 2,188 fans recorded in the Cardinals’ SUNYAC Championship Final loss is a far cry from the 800 in the Pioneers’ finale.

During Aaron’s first season, the old Crete Center was demolished. Mark is still trying to find the time to return to the North Country and watch Aaron play on the same ice he played on, at the Ronnie B.

“You’re far north,” Mark said. “But the town is awesome.”

 

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