HB returns to ice, with some help

There is a different feeling at Cyclones Arena in Hudson these days when the Hollis Brookline-Derryfield skaters take the ice for practice.

It’s a feeling of purpose. It’s also a feeling of new life.

A year ago, the high school varsity ice hockey program at Hollis Brookline was on the verge of extinction. It couldn’t have been any worse, as low numbers had led to a cancellation of the 2013-14 varsity season, 24 hours after a player, who by all accounts was planning on returning to the team, Cam Ricard, was killed in an auto accident.

But now? It seems where there is a strong will, there’s definitely a way. The Hollis Brookline administration kept the program going with a limited junior varsity schedule during the winter of 2014, so it wouldn’t disappear completely. And then in the spring, plans were finalized for a co-op with Derryfield, as a half dozen skaters from that school are giving the program more than enough players – 17 in total – to survive.

They may not be the Cavaliers, as they are called the “Warriors.” But who’s going to argue semantics?

“It feels really good, really nice to have a team put together,” senior forward Dan Ash said. “It’s a great way to go out (as a senior). I played with the JV team last year; it meant a lot last year, but it means a lot this year, too, being a varsity team.”

Clearly, there was a lot of emotion not only when the team took the ice for the first practice but also for its first home game, a 4-3 loss at the hands of Timberlane at Cyclones last week.

“It’s exciting for us, last couple of years it’s been a little shakey, especially with the numbers, commitment of coaches,” one of the team’s captains, Tom Johnson, said, as he feels fortunate to be beginning his fourth year of hockey for the school. And Johnson doesn’t care how it’s been done to keep things going.

“This year, we’re really tight,” he said. “We’re excited to have a full squad. It’s not two teams, Hollis Brookline and Derryfield. It should be a good season, it should be competitive, we’re excited about it.”

Of course, the emotional part of all this is keeping alive not only the program, but Ricard’s memory.

“We’re excited to keep his spirit alive; he loved the sport of hockey, we’re excited to keep it going here,” Johnson said, citing the fact that just two weeks ago was the anniversary of his former teammate’s untimely passing. “I wish he was out here with us, it’ll be a tough year without him. A lot of the Derryfield kids came in and helped us out.”

So did the team’s new coach, former Merrimack head man Kurt Mithoefer.

“It’s great,” Johnson said. “I love (Mithoefer’s) commitment, his intensity, his knowledge of the game, he works really hard. Coach Kurt, he’s going to be a real solid coach for us. We appreciated the Derryfield kids coming in and Coach Kurt stepping up.”

This team has given Mithoefer a rebirth as well, as he fell out of favor with the Merrimack administration last year despite being named the Division II Coach of the Year. When his contract at Merrimack was not renewed, Mithoefer jumped at the chance to take over the Hollis Brookline-Derryfield reins.

“I looked at it as an opportunity for the next chapter; here’s a team that had something terrible happen to it,” Mithoefer said. “I went through my struggles toward the tail end (at Merrimack). I took this job knowing what I was entering into. I took this job knowing what I did at Merrimack (three playoffs and one finals appearance) and what I was capable of. And I wanted to be part of something great.”

He knew it wouldn’t be an easy task. Not only did he have to deal with the emotions of the situation, the co-op experience of blending new teammates together, but also he had to restore the varsity mentality.

“That’s one thing we’re working on, the varsity mentality,” Mithoefer said. “This isn’t going to be play-around hockey. It’ll be an hour of drills, skating, conditioning, and get yourselves to be a legit contender. What I don’t want is to get this program up and running, partner with Derryfield, and then coming out and struggling this year. I want to have success.”

Mithoefer met with the players early last summer to go over all the ground rules and assure them he was serious about restoring the program.

“One of the first things when I was meeting with a couple of the kids, they were asking what are practices going to be like, are we going to have enough kids,” he said. “When I took the job, I knew about Cam, I knew what had happened the year before. So I knew it was going to be difficult. But it’s a great group of kids. When I talked to a couple of them, the reason they wanted to play last year, and didn’t throw in the towel, that just shows the true grit of the kids, they wanted to play in memory of Cam.”

And because of that, this is not your typical team, co-op or otherwise, Mithoefer feels.

“They’re tighter and more bonded than any other high school team out there right now just because of what they’ve gone through,” he said. “They want to not let themselves down, not let Cam down, they want to play for the team and get it back to what it was. I’m deeply impressed with their never quit attitude.”

The Derryfield players seemed to know exactly what they were getting into.

“You know, I wasn’t sure about it, but I have to say it’s been a great experience,” Allen Mello, a Derryfield student from Nashua said. “I was kind of nervous about whether the unity would really be there, but the guys have been really great.”

Being local, Mello knew of Ricard and what had happened with the Cavaliers of last year.

“I think it was a real tragedy what happened, I do have some friends that were affected, some real close friends from Nashua,” Mello said. “I think it’s a great way to honor Cam, and keep his memory alive. It felt great to kind of help. I speak for the rest of Derryfield, we’re really happy to be playing with Hollis.”

“I think with the meshing of the kids, they all kind of knew each other; if you’re a hockey player, you have that connection, regardless of where you come from,” Mithoefer said. “What the kids went through, that just bonded them a little bit quicker. This is one team, with one goal in mind. That’s kind of where we’re going to go with it.”

Ash says it’s been a smooth transition.

“It was different, but everybody got to know each other really well,” he said. “I think it has a lot more meaning because we’re seniors, too; it’s our last year playing hockey altogether, it’s a chance to play on a more competitive level and have a lot more opportunity.”

The opportunity, Mithoefer said, is what the Warriors will make of it.

“With the kids we have, the maturity they have, the size they have, they can hone in on the skills and have a pretty good season,” he said right before the opener. “Our goal is to make the playoffs and from there, anything can happen.

“I think with the approach we’re taking with this, and the way things have all aligned, I think we’re gong to do great. Being part of something like that is going to be great. Last year with Merrimack, we did great, I was Coach of the Year. I’m not changing anything from that and hopefully here we’ll have the same results. It’s hockey. When you step on that sheet of ice, nothing else matters, nothing else is the focus. They’re here to do a job, I’m here to do a job, that’s kind of where we’re going to go with it. I like it. It’s a challenge.”

A challenge, and a rebirth. Varsity hockey, with some help from Derryfield, lives at Hollis Brookline once again.