JY20: How I got hooked on high school hockey

November 18, 2015 on 9:25 am | In history, JY20 | No Comments

So if I’m going to do this – reflect on 20 years of covering high school ice hockey in New Jersey, while looking at the 2015-16 season as landmark year No. 20 – I should probably start at the beginning. How did I, someone who has never played a game of ice hockey in my life, someone who had never even been on skates, wind up so consumed by this little corner of the sport?

Well, the credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) has to start with my parents, probably with my mother. You see, when I was 6 or 7, I got the bright idea that I wanted to go to a New Jersey Devils game. Don’t ask me where it came from. I was into sports – I became an Oakland Athletics fan via the television program Reading Rainbow, I started collecting baseball cards, I watched football on TV with my mother and my grandfather – but I’m really not sure what made me want to see an NHL game.

Anyway, my mother wisely recommended that before we dropped serious money on NHL tickets, we should find out if we (I?) actually liked this sport. My mother was a regular reader of our local sports section in the Daily Record, and she saw the high school sports coverage and the regular schedules. This was a cheap way to find out if I was really interested in this particular sport.

So one day, in January as I recall, probably in 1991, she took me to my first hockey game. It was at Mennen Arena, Randolph beat the heck out of somebody 12-2, and we had a ball.

It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a close game. It definitely didn’t matter that we didn’t know all the rules. Something about it just connected with us and made us feel welcome. There was a scoreboard and announcements and cheering and, as my older sister would put it, “sports-ing.”

We were hooked.

I say ‘we,’ because I wasn’t the only one. My mother and father quickly came to enjoy going to games almost as much as I did. (At least that’s what they let me believe; they have always been wonderful about being/acting interested in whatever my brother, sister, and I are interested in. And those are usually three very different things.) So it became routine for one of them to take me to a game or two every week.

Born and raised in Morristown, that was the school we went to see the most often, but we became fans of the league and would watch just about anybody. I was lucky that our home rink was home to perhaps the best-organized high school league you could ask for.

The Morris County Secondary Schools Ice Hockey League (its official title, a mouthful that often got shortened to just Morris County Hockey League, or MCHL) ingeniously printed a schedule card each year. Folded into thirds, it listed the entire schedule of games to be played at Mennen Arena. The cards were pocket-sized and available in the Mennen Arena office at no charge, no matter how many times you lost yours and had to get a new one.

I have distinct memories of my mother reaching into her jacket pocket, pulling out the schedule card, and reading off upcoming game(s) to me, wondering aloud if it was worth going to Mennen Arena that night. In those pre-internet days, it was way simpler, easier, and more portable than checking the local newspaper.

The 11 hockey teams of Morris County, plus Pingry from neighboring Somerset County, were grouped into three divisions of four, based on skill level. The Mennen Cup tournament at the end of the year was the primary goal, with seven teams qualifying: all four from the top division, two from the middle division, and the champion of the bottom division. As I got older, I realized just how compelling this format was, grouping teams based generally on ability and historical success, yet giving each team hope that, if they were good enough, they could win the overall championship.

But at age 6 or 7, one thing I really liked about the league, and its schedule card, was the bracket.

The Mennen Cup was decided by a seven-team, single-elimination tournament held each February (at one time, it was double elimination, but that’s another, much more complicated story). The bracket was on the final panel of the schedule card. In stark contrast to the tight columns of team names and start times on all the other panels, the bracket was free and open and up for grabs, like anything could happen in those six crucial games. Each spot on the bracket was labeled with the team that would eventually play there, such as “1st place ‘A’” for the winner of the top division, and the possibilities for where a team might land and how they might progress to the final (overtime! shootouts! things you never saw in the regular season!) seemed endless.

This fascinated me. I wanted to fill out the bracket and see the teams advance as soon as possible. As I got older, I’m sure I wasted more than a few schedule cards by filling out projected brackets or wishful-thinking brackets well before February. I know I doodled away plenty of afternoons, both in school and after school, drawing brackets for anything and everything, hockey or not.

Clearly, I loved a good bracket. I still do, as readers of my site have probably noticed. But it was only one piece of the puzzle. I loved just about everything about the MCHL.

The chance to chase pucks behind the goal during pre-game warm-ups (I may have to devote an entire chapter to this art form), the ability to pay for one ticket and stay for 2-3 games per day, playing video games between (and sometimes during) periods, the signboards that indicated which teams were playing and where their fans should sit, the shiny trophies in the lobby, the sounds, the smells, the zamboni (!) …

I was hooked, alright.

My mother and I did eventually make it to a Devils game, but Brendan Byrne Arena was nothing compared to what we had in our own hometown. Our hearts belonged at Mennen, and my passion for New Jersey hockey had been ignited.

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