mnorlander@bcnnew.com

More than a decade away from the game, St. Luke's is getting back on the ice.

Though the school won't reach its official Fairchester Athletic Association (FAA) varsity status until the winter of 2010-11, everything is now in place for the rebirth of a program.

Currently, the school is in its third year playing strictly at middle-school level games. Grades 5 through 8 have been going up against Greenwich Country Day, Harvey, Fairfield Prep, New Canaan Country and Hamden Hall to prepare for life at the next level.

It's the route head coach and athletic director Kevin Butler sees to be the best way to grow the sport at the school and recruit incoming students who might not have chosen St. Luke's if not for the hockey option.

"We took a survey analysis of what students would be interested in," Butler said. "Our goal was to really start it from the grassroots level and build it up versus, say, asking, `Do we have it [enough talent] at the upper-school level."

Butler, who's been with St. Luke's for five years, has always wanted to get the hockey program back. The school had been dormant in the sport for more than a decade due to a combination of two things: numbers of players dwindled in the late 1990s and finding time for a varsity team to play at a premier venue became more and more taxing.

In an effort to "diversify the winter program," Butler and the sports department looked at other sport offerings in the FAA before choosing hockey. Wrestling and swimming were discussed, but since St. Luke's does not have a pool and it does not have a room conducive to wrestling, hockey seemed to be the best fit.

So, three years ago, the school found out there was about 10 students who were involved in youth hockey programs throughout the year.

The school then began shopping around for ice team two years ago. Stamford Twin Rinks, which is about a 20-minute drive from St. Luke's, became an option early in the morning.

Since then, the program has proved it can grow and the school can afford to put a team on the ice. Two years ago there were 11 players, last year's team had 16, and this year, on the middle school level alone, the program is expected to have 24 boys and girls on the team.

It's been quite a leap for St. Luke's, which only offered one winter sport five years ago: basketball. Now, there's basketball, squash, skiing and hockey.

The school isn't jumping into the sport merely to get more involved and spread the brand name. No, they have brought in experienced coaches and plan on building a proud tradition as quickly as possible.

Butler is more than familiar with the sport. He grew up Brampton, Ontario, and played hockey throughout high school and college. He's coached in Canada and been running the middle school program, of course, since its inception.

"Internally, I've got a lot of excitement for the program," Butler said. "But our football coach, Ryan Brown, has been assisting and we brought two other great coaches in."

Those coaches are Corey Gammill and Marlena Rodriguez. Gammill coached at Avon, a powerhouse in high school hockey; Rodriguez played at Boston College and coached at the Gunnery School.

It's not yet clear, when the program goes to varsity next season, which coaches will go where, but there is now a pool to pick from and the likelihood that all will get the title of head coach once St. Luke's can put a girls and boys varsity team, as well as JV clubs, on the ice.

Butler said he hopes to have the numbers to do that by 2015.

"We're hoping traditional ice hockey players ... now will take more of a look at us since we have ice hockey with a great prep school academic environment. They can stay home and have a great experience, versus having to go off to a boarding school. We're looking to support ice hockey family who are looking for that combination of a preparatory school and an academic environment."

St. Luke's will have four in-conference foes that also put on the pads: Brunswick, King, Rye Country Day and Hamden Hall are the other FAA schools that offer the option on the ice.

Coinciding with the Crusaders' decision to get back into hockey is good news from the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC), which has gone out of one division, so it will allow St. Luke's to schedule anyone when it goes varsity.

Also, NEPSAC is going to three tournaments in the postseason. There will be a "big-school" tournament, which will feature the best eight teams, a mid-tier eight-team tournament and a smaller-school tournament. It will give St. Luke's an immediate, realistic postseason goal when it begins next year.

"It's great timing with New England prep school hockey and the changes they're doing," Butler said.

When the school goes to varsity status next year, it will play a JV-heavy schedule, with a few games against varsity programs. The school will skate at Bridgeport's Wonderland of Ice for practice and home games.

It's been a long pregnancy, but the rebirth is on its way. The last year of prep begins now for this prep school.