Manchester is In the hockey spotlight
There are nine NHIAA ice hockey championship banners hanging inside JFK Coliseum. Four of them belong to Manchester Memorial, three to Trinity, two to Manchester Central.
A 10th banner will be up shortly, and it may become the one Manchester hockey fans remember best.
"That banner is going to be special because it's going to represent a historic game, a historic moment," said Memorial head coach Mark Putney. "It's Memorial and Central for the state championship. It doesn't get any better than that."
The first ice hockey state championship game pitting two Manchester public high schools is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Wireless Arena, less than two miles from JFK.
The Division I final, in which the two city teams will play, is the last of four championships at the state's biggest arena on New Hampshire high school hockey's biggest day. The puck extravaganza starts with the girls' title game pitting four-time champion Hanover against Oyster River of Durham at 10 a.m.
Next is the Division III boys' final, featuring Berlin and the cooperative team composed of players from Hopkinton High and John Stark Regional of Weare. Berlin, led by high-scoring junior Connor Jewett (60 goals this season) takes a 20-0 record into the 12:15 p.m. title game,
In the Division II final at 2:30 p.m., defending champion Bedford will try to knock off top-ranked Merrimack (48-7-1 over the last three seasons) for the third time this year.
But the most anticipated game of the day is the all-city Division I showdown.
Thirty years ago, when Brian Stone played for Manchester Central, the two teams he never wanted to lose to were rivals Manchester Memorial and Manchester West.
"Memorial and West were the two games we'd always circle first on the schedule," said Stone, now head coach of the Little Green. "Those were always hard-nose intense games, and I never wanted to lose them. Especially (to) Memorial, because we both practiced at the JFK, and you never wanted to see them after a loss."
Three decades later, Stone has a different perspective on the Memorial-Central rivalry.
In fact, after Central beat Londonderry on Wednesday to gain its berth in the final, he stuck around to watch Memorial face St. Thomas Aquinas of Dover in the other semifinal and actually found himself rooting for the Crusaders as they rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Saints in overtime, 4-3.
"I spent my last three years as an assistant coach at Memorial," said Stone. "There's still a little piece of me in that (Memorial) locker room. I kept telling people around me when Memorial was losing 3-0 to not give up. I told them Memorial was going to come back and they did. That's a gritty team."
Putney said he challenged his players before the third period, when they were down by three goals.
"I just told them we basically had two ways to go at that point," the Memorial coach said. "We could come out and quit or show some heart and character and battle to the end."
Like Stone, Putney now leads the team for which he once played, and Stone remains grateful to Putney for giving him his start in high school coaching.
"We're good friends, and I made a point to sneak over and congratulate Mark after they beat St, Thomas," Stone said. "I'm going to do everything I can to help us beat Memorial, but this is a great moment for all our kids and all the city hockey programs. Many of these players played together and against each other in youth hockey, and now they're sharing the biggest stage. It's too bad someone is going to lose, but to have both city teams in the final game is special."
Last year Memorial reached the finals and lost to Pinkerton, 3-2, after falling behind by three goals.
"I'm going to approach this game a little differently than last year's game," said Putney. "We didn't carry last year's loss with us into this year. But there's some lessons learned from that game I think will help prepare us for this game."
Today's game is expected to be close until the final horn. Memorial enters as the No. 1 seed, Central as the No. 2 seed. They both own 16-4 marks. They split their two games during the regular season.
"We may have a little more depth than Central, but the match-up is as even as it gets," said Putney.
Central seniors Austin Sprague, Derek Franco, Mitchel Fortin, Trevor Malmgren, Scott Robidoux, Tyler Stratton and back-up goalie Tyler Cornellier will be playing their last high school game. The same is true of Memorial seniors Adam Tack, Colin Williamson, Ethan Pollock, Brady McNulty, Christopher Burgess, Joren Hayes, Kyle Broussard, Jacob Boylan and goalie Joshua Jacob.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime game for the kids, especially the seniors," said Stone.
No matter the outcome, the next banner hung at JFK Coliseum will remind everyone that the 2013 Division I championship was the first of its kind: an all-city, winner-take-all contest to determine state superiority on ice.