Deacons give players chance to continue playing
By Greg Bates
DE PERE – Hundreds of players have laced up their skates for the Deacons hockey team in the 40-plus years of the franchise’s existence.
When it looked as though the Green Bay Deacons could fold in 2012, there were current and former players who weren’t going to let that happen.
“We don’t want to see it die,” said David Lepp, who played for the Deacons from 1978-95 and is now the team’s general manager. “We intended to help, but then we ended up taking the whole team over – here we are.”
Six alumni players swooped in to take responsibility for running the team after Carl Magnuson retired after 30 years at the helm.
The alumni converted the franchise into the De Pere Deacons Hockey Team, Inc., and gained status to operate it as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
“That was big for everybody,” said Tony Purpur, who has played on the Deacons for 17 seasons. “The Deacons have been around for a long time. If they would have folded, that would have been a big damper on the whole Great Lakes Hockey League (GLHL). They’ve been a staple of the league since the beginning.”
The Deacons, who started in 1977, compete in the nine-team GLHL, which features players 18 years of age and up who played in college, juniors and some semi-pro.
At 40 years old, Purpur is the longest-running and oldest player on the team, with most of the players in their mid-20s to early 30s.
Purpur is married with three kids, where a lot of the players haven’t started families yet.
“I’m probably more responsible, and I take on more responsibilities with the team as well, because I’ve been there so long,” Purpur said. “I’m the guy with the keys to the locker room. I sharpen skates, and I do all the other stuff. It’s lots of responsibility on my end.”
Purpur said he wouldn’t trade his time on the ice for anything, and said he looks forward to coming back every season.
“All the guys are good guys, the hockey is good and you still get to hit and do all the fun stuff that hockey includes,” Purpur said.
During a regular year, the Deacons practice every Wednesday at the De Pere Ice Arena and play games generally on Fridays and Saturdays.
The team travels to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a few times a year to take on league teams and also travels around the state to Eagle River, Mosinee and Monroe.
Turnover on the team can be quite high because of the time commitment.
“The people rooted in Green Bay seem to come back,” Lepp said. “You get guys who are transferred here for work, and then they get transferred out. I’d say 50 percent of the team is every year.”
This year has been different with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing.
There will also be no travel to the U.P. this season.
Teams in the GLHL will play a revised 14-game schedule instead of the normal 20 contests.
“You chomp at the bit to play a game,” Lepp said. “You can only hit your own guys so many times in practice.”
The Deacons have enjoyed success in the past and won a national championship in 2010.
Purpur, Ryan Cunniff and Matt Pearson are the only three players from that title team to play in recent years.
“I’ve been to some national championships before the Deacons, and I played in some national championships with the Deacons, but never had won one,” Purpur said. “It’s not professional hockey, and it’s not a junior league where you’re going to get scouted to play Division I college. We put our heart and soul into this team to win that championship.”
Purpur said it’s been five or six years since the team was in contention to win a title.
Last season, the Deacons went 7-10 in league play and finished in seventh place.
Lepp noted the Deacons are starting to get more competitive again.
“We’re getting some younger people in and some college players who played at St. Norbert – that’s always a plus,” said Lepp. “We’re not satisfied with how we’ve been playing. It’s slowly getting a little better.”
Getting to play hockey at an older age is great, but Purpur said wins and losses are the most important thing for the guys.
“The last couple years I started playing again, it’s been a little rough,” he said. “We have some talent on the team, but this league is tough – you’ve got to get guys to commit to everything. Guys do have lives and can’t commit to every game. I’m hopeful for this season.”