High school hockey players still together in time
Take the picture that hangs on a wall in Brady McNulty's bedroom. There are 17 kids in the picture - 16 boys and one girl. They're young -10 and 11 years old - and all dressed up.
They're sitting in a corner of the Ice Den, a hockey arena in Hooksett. They're happy, smiling the smile of kids who just did something special.
A thousand words to tell that story? Forget it.
You see, we're not talking about a story; we're talking about many stories. Every one of those kids in that picture has a different story to tell about it. And most have that picture somewhere easily accessible.
They'll tell stories about the stuff they'd say to each other in the locker room before early-morning practices and about the late-night goofing around in the hotels they stayed in during a weekend trip together.
They'll tell about the time they gathered at the home of one player whose parents were out at the Aloha on Manchester's Hanover Street. They'll tell about going to Canada and having kids come up and ask for their autographs.
They'll tell about watching Austin Sprague eat Pop-Tarts and drink Pepsi and wonder if he ate or drank anything else.
Of course, they'll also talk about the games.
There were so many games. And they won most of them.
They played together for years in the Manchester Regional Youth Hockey Association - some from the time they were 5. But that picture tells the story of when they were members of the Squirt A Flames and it was tough to find a better team at that level in New England.
They won championships in two leagues, the Granite State League and the Dual State League, competing against teams from Massachusetts as well as New Hampshire. They played more than 100 games together and reached the semifinals of the New England regional before losing to their nemesis, Mid Fairfield, Conn.
But here's the thing: For all their stories, there's little talk about who was the best player. Their experience was all about the team, in keeping with the values instilled by their coach, Marty Myers.
Now the head coach of the boys' varsity team at Bedford High School, Myers is a man who rarely points out an individual; everything is in the context of the team.
That hockey season seven winters ago wasn't about the wins; it was about working hard and learning to play as a team. Myers had no power-play units, no penalty killers - just hockey players. Even the goalies split time right down the middle.
The kids bought into that.
"We had a great coach," Sprague said. "He brought us all together."
SATURDAY's 4:30 p.m. game at JFK Coliseum will be Senior Night, with city rivals Manchester Central and Manchester Memorial facing off in the last game of the NHIAA regular season.
For seven of those seniors - Sprague, Trevor Malmgren, Scott Robidoux and Tyler Stratton of Central, and McNulty, Ethan Pollock and Colin Williamson of Memorial - it may be the last time they are all on the ice together.
It probably never seemed like such a day would ever come, certainly not when they posed together for that picture at the Ice Den. They had just beaten the Seacoast Spartans for the Granite State League squirt title, and their smiles stretched from ear to ear as they huddled in front of the camera.
Boy, do they look different now.
Williamson has a beard. Pollock stands more than 6 feet tall and has long, wavy hair. OK, McNulty kind of looks the same, but you get the idea.
Times change, and so do young hockey players.
BY THE time they headed off to high school, the former youth-hockey teammates were about to become rivals.
In addition to the Central and Memorial players, three members of the 2006 squirt state champs now play for city rival Trinity, two for Merrimack High and one for Bedford. A few more play at various prep schools.
Almost every one of them continues to play and be successful. Ashley Anctil, the only girl on the 2005-06 team, is one of the top players at Pomfret (Conn.) School, Matt Tufts is at Winchendon (Mass.) School, and Robbie Tuite is at Portsmouth (R.I.) Abbey, but most are still playing in New Hampshire, keys to some of the state's best teams.
Central and Memorial will play for first place in Division I Saturday, while Trinity bids to finish in the top four. Merrimack is leading Division II, with Bedford third.
And those little kids in the picture? They're right in the middle of it all.
Among the alumni from that Squirt A Flames team, Sprague is the leading scorer in Division I, while Connor Powell (Merrimack) is the leading scorer in Division II. Malmgren and Kyle Valliere (Trinity) rank among the top six scorers in Division I, while Pollock, Stratton, McNulty and Mitch Myers (Trinity) are all in the top 20. Kurt Mitchell (Bedford) is eighth in scoring in Division II, and Ryan Slatky (Trinity) and Brett Glendye (Merrimack) are considered two of the top goalies in the state.
All former members of the same youth team.
Memorial's McNulty said Saturday will be filled with emotion. But don't expect sentimentality to get in the way once the puck drops.
"We talk, but when it's game time, it's different. There are no friends out there when we play each other," Central's Sprague said.
"Before the season, we hang out with them a lot more," said Memorial's Williamson of his former teammates. "But when we have to play against them, we don't."
The games will be over soon - all but Powell, Tufts and Mitch Myers are seniors - and the former Squirt A Flames will really start to scatter. They will go to college, with a couple possibly first doing a post-graduate year at prep school or playing junior hockey, but most don't have plans to play beyond the club or adult recreational league level.
The days of hanging out at the rink together will just be memories. Stories to tell.
Maybe that's why Robidoux came back this year to play his final season at Central after taking the past couple of years off.
"When I stopped playing, I realized how much I loved it," he said.
It's tough to break those bonds, most established during those years with the Flames. There have been hours upon hours of shared ice time, miles upon miles of road trips.
You can build up some stories over years. Thousands of them.