The click and clack of hockey sticks can be heard throughout Hudson County as the sport of ice hockey gains popularity in the area. It's a sport that's gaining interest faster than the lightning pace with which it is played. Across the nation, Canada's contribution to North American sports is trickling its way into local recreation and high school programs. "It's a fast sport that kids can pick up quick, and at a young age," said Frank McGady, a Hudson Catholic High School assistant ice hockey coach who also helps to organize the Bayonne Rangers youth hockey program. This area has been the backyard to some of the more significant events that have recently shaped the close-knit hockey world. Wayne Gretzky's playing for the New York Rangers across the river attracted a great deal of attention to the National Hockey League. Local coaches also attribute the Stanley Cup championships won by the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils in 1994 and 1995, respectively, as two more defining moments. "The NHL is making an attempt to get into the cities and market their game," said Jim Brennan, head coach for the St. Peter's Prep hockey team. "And it's a fun sport to play." On the home front, Jersey City's Hudson Catholic High School, currently unbeaten and the third-ranked hockey team in the state of New Jersey, is the dominant team in the area. This past week, the Hawks hosted the Millennium Mayor's Cup Hockey Tournament of Secaucus. Included in the eight-team tournament were Monsignor Farrell of Staten Island, St. Anthony of Long Island, Gonzaga Prep of Washington, D.C., LaSalle of Philadelphia, Sachem High School of Long Island, Montreal's Loyola Prep, and Xaverian of Brooklyn. Hudson Catholic went on to win the Mayor's Cup, a tournament only in its second year of existence. The fast and furious play that has local kids hooked on hockey was present in the tournament as well, which saw the Hawks clinch the championship in an overtime thriller against LaSalle. Youth ice hockey programs in Bayonne, Jersey City and Secaucus have helped to usher in the newfound interest in the game. After being shut down during the construction of the new Pershing Field Ice Rink, the Jersey City Capitals program has begun its return to form in the past two years. Years ago, according to league organizers, the program was a success. "The Jersey City Capitals program is going to make a big difference," Brennan said. "For years, we didn't have a program because there was no rink." The Capitals field a travelling hockey team for 8- and 9-year-olds, as well as a popular clinic for skaters as young as 4 years old. Players up to age 9 may take part in the clinic, which provides up to 30 hours of ice time for the beginners over the course of the winter months. "When kids come here for the first time, they can't skate at all," said Charlie Heger, who organizes the league. Heger, a well-known name in Hudson hockey circles, has been involved with the game on the local level for almost 20 years. He said that hockey has never been the area's top sport, with basketball, football, soccer and baseball attracting the majority of youngsters. Despite hockey's competition, Heger is optimistic about the future on the frozen pond, especially in Jersey City. "The program itself is a great program," Heger said, "and I say that humbly. I can't say enough about the support the city and the Department of Recreation have given us." Ice time Despite their success, every hockey program in Hudson County - and the entire Northeast, for that matter - face the same challenging obstacle. "We have a hard time getting ice time," Brennan said. Because there is a shortage of ice rinks, time on the ice is the most valuable commodity for a team. Because there is only so much ice to go around, and only so many hours in the day, hockey players in this part of the country are used to playing and practicing at odd hours. Coaches tell stories of waking up well before dawn for to play a game three hours away from home, while still sore from the previous night's contest that may have been played after midnight. "You just accept that," McGady said. "It's a fact of life." In addition to the sparse ice time, the game of hockey is also faced with the challenge that to play requires buying hundreds of dollars' worth of equipment. The cost of sticks, skates, shoulder pads, a helmet, and an array of protective gear turns many parents off from having their children play the game. "It's a big expense," Brennan said, "but with the Jersey City program, I think you're going to see a lot more kids getting interested." In most hockey programs, including Hudson leagues, every player is registered with USA Hockey when they sign up to play. According to statistics released by the sport's governing body, in the last 10 years the number of USA Hockey-signed players, coaches and officials throughout the country has tripled. Cory Robinson, Hudson Catholic's head coach, also helps to manage the Secaucus Youth Hockey program and the Secaucus Ice Rink. According to Robinson, Secaucus' ice is completely booked from the early morning hours until almost midnight. Robinson said that there are nearly 150 children enrolled in the Secaucus youth program organized by Recreation Director Robert Fantozzi and Councilman Fred Constantino. Like Bayonne, which has another 80 players, Secaucus has teams for players between the ages of 8 and 18. With over 70 children enrolled in the hockey clinic side of its operation, Jersey City represents the future of area hockey, according to coaches. For years, there was a program in Jersey City, but without a rink to play in, the league was forced to join forces with the Bayonne youth program. "We're getting the program back to where we were in the past," Heger said.