It's that most wonderful time of the year ... time for the annual Bauer Christmas Hockey Classic.
The fourth Bauer Classic takes place at JFK Coliseum starting today and running through Sunday. Formerly the Coca-Cola Christmas Classic, the annual Queen City high school hockey tournament has been a staple since 1981.
"It started with Hubie McDonough Jr. (then Memorial coach) and Wally Tafe Jr. (then Central coach) and they were looking to try to get more games in than their regular high school schedule and they started this tournament," said current Memorial coach Mark Putney. "A lot of people refer to it as Manchester's Beanpot because it was Memorial and Central and Trinity and West. It grew over the years and we had teams from Massachusetts and Maine and then Berlin and Nashua. We've had a whole array of teams that have come in."
This year's pool consists of eight teams, a mixture of NHIAA Division I and Division II programs that includes Memorial, Manchester Central, Manchester West, Trinity, Merrimack, Concord, Hanover, Bedford and Goffstown. The two pools, formerly known simply as Group A and Group B, will be jazzed up this year with some familiar names, as will the MVP award.
"We're having the McDonough Jr. Division and the Tafe Jr. Division to recognize both Hubie and Wally for their years of contribution to high school hockey. That's something we added this year," Putney said. "The tournament MVP trophy will be named the Butch Joseph MVP Award."
Joseph, a longtime fixture in Manchester hockey, was the main reason the tournament continued after sponsorship was lost several years ago. Joseph became chairman of a committee to keep the tournament alive and found the new sponsor.
"Butch was able to talk with Kevin Davis, the CEO of Bauer, and Bauer stepped up to the plate and has been our sponsor for the last four years and we couldn't do it without them," Putney said. "It's been a pleasure working with them and keeping this tournament going."
Games today, Friday and Saturday will take place at 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m. Today's matchups are (in order of game time): Concord vs. Hanover, Goffstown vs. Merrimack, Central vs. Trinity and Memorial vs. Bedford. Friday it's Memorial vs. Hanover, Bedford vs. Concord, Goffstown vs. Trinity and Central vs. Merrimack. On Saturday: Central vs. Goffstown, Bedford vs. Hanover, Trinity vs. Merrimack and Concord vs. Memorial.
The consolation game between the two second-place teams in each pool will take place on Sunday at 5:30 p.m., with the championship to follow at 7:30. Memorial will also raise its NHIAA state championship banner before its game Saturday, with former players expected to take part in a short ceremony.
"This is our third year in it. I think it's a great tournament," said Merrimack coach Kurt Mithoefer. "Every year it's a pretty good battle. We won it two years ago. Of the eight teams, it's usually a good turnout and every game is pretty closely matched. I'm a fan of being a part of it."
And even though it's no longer Manchester-centric, the rivalry games remain a calling card of the tournament.
"It's a great time for rivalries to get together that may not see each other as much in the regular season," said Trinity coach Mike Connell. "We look forward to things like that and the guys look forward to the games and not having as much pressure on them. You want to win, but it's not going to make a difference in making a playoff spot or not."
Most of the coaches will use the tournament, which does not count in the NHIAA standings, to get a look at some of the deeper parts of their bench."The way we look at it is an extension of scrimmages. We've had one regular season game so this is a chance to mix up some lines, try some different things and different schemes," Mithoefer said. "Obviously, we want to win and be competitive in every game, but the main goal is the regular season so this is a good chance to mix up lines and see what works and what doesn't."
For the Manchester coaches, seeing the tournament alive and well is important.
"It's stronger now than it ever has been as far as participation and how they run it," Connell said. "It's great to keep it going."
Other hockey tournaments taking place include the Tuscan Kitchen Christmas Hockey Tournament in Salem (today through Saturday), the Kennett High School Invitational in Conway (Friday and Saturday), The Heuchling/Swift Memorial Tournament hosted by Oyster River in Durham (Friday to Sunday), the Kingswood Holiday Ice Classic in Wolfeboro (Friday to Sunday) and the Nashua Holiday Hockey Classic (Friday to Monday).