October 26, 2013

HockeyTown: South Burlington, Vermont

By Mike Zhe

The South Burlington High School Rebels won the 2013 Div. 1 state championship. 

Everything a hockey program needs to thrive, it seems, is right at the fingertips for South Burlington (Vt.) High School.

There’s a home base in town, two-rink Cairns Arena, which has hosted everything from high school games to international tilts, when the Women’s World Championship was held in the area in 2012.

There’s a glimpse of the next level just a few miles north at the University of Vermont, where game nights at Gutterson Fieldhouse remain one of the hottest sports tickets in the state.

There’s a strong youth program and a great rivalry with another local high school, Champlain Valley Union, whose locker room entrance at Cairns sits barely 10 feet away.

Mix in nearly 50 years of history and a coaching tree with some pretty extended branches, and it’s no surprise that when high school teams across the state take the ice this winter, South Burlington will be wearing the label of defending champion in Division 1.

“Our success is pretty reflective of the overall success of hockey in our area,” said Sean Jones (Jericho, Vt.), who’s been the head coach at SBHS since 2002-03.

Cairns Arena was built in 1995, the $2 million project shepherded through by a non-profit group when voters said no to financing it. A second rink was added a decade ago, and the arena counts SBHS, CVU, private Rice Memorial High School in town and St. Michael’s College among its tenants.

“There’s always hockey going on,” said Jones. “That’s the center. Everybody kind of meets there.”

Most local players come up through the Chittenden South Burlington Youth Hockey Association, which was founded in 1982. CSB, a nonprofit organization that feeds both SBHS and CVU, is run by people who “get it,” said Jones, aimed at building the skills and promoting a love of the game, not just trying to make a buck.

South Burlington, like many towns in the area, is also fortunate to have a good working relationship with UVM, whose coach — Kevin Sneddon — is a South Burlington resident, and sees first-hand what’s going on at the youth and high school levels.

“First of all, we’re very fortunate to be supported by all different areas of Chittenden County,” said Sneddon. “South Burlington, obviously, has a huge passion for hockey, right up from youth hockey all the way up to the high school.

“I’m a South Burlington resident and I’m very proud of our hockey players. We certainly see it in our attendance. We have a lot of support from that area, in particular, attending our games. I’m always happy to get out there, whether it’s with my daughter for her youth hockey, or just going to different clinics. There’s a big interest there.”

The Catamounts reached the Frozen Four in 2008-09 and returned to the NCAA tournament the following year. On Nov. 1-2, the program will celebrate 50 years of hockey with a full weekend of festivities built around games against Notre Dame.

“A lot of what cements the fever is our relationship with UVM,” said Jones. “These kids have grown up seeing Frozen Four appearances. A lot of guys who put in the work for CSB are former UVM players.

“A couple years ago, (forward) Brady Leisenring (Stowe, Vt.) was injured and had to redshirt, and he worked with us all season long. There’s just really a great commitment when it comes to hockey.”

Jones felt the seeds for SBHS’ championship last winter were planted in 2010-11, when the team finished just 10-10-1. But he saw something that year, of players believing in each other, from the stars to the last guys on the roster.

“When I look back on it, there was no headaches,” said Jones. “The kids bought into each other and bought into the system. To be honest, it kind of opened my eyes to the importance of chemistry.”

Last year’s state title — the first in the program’s Division 1 history — was highlighted by a trio of games against rival CVU. The teams split their regular-season meetings, including a SBHS win in the annual CSB Cup, and both advanced to the championship at Gutterson Fieldhouse in a game whose puck didn’t drop until 9 p.m. because of an earlier game that ran long.

The Rebels jumped out to a 2-0 lead, watched CVU storm back, and then won it late in the third period when Matt Baechle scored the game-winner and then set up a Gabe Simpatico insurance goal for a 4-2 win.

“Our rivalry with CVU is awesome,” said Jones. “It’s healthy. The guys grow up playing together. They know each other and respect each other.”

“And to play it at UVM, in front of your home crowd … it was a packed house,” said SBHS athletic director Mike O’Day. “Pretty good stuff.”

SBHS first fielded a team in 1966-67 under the guidance of Phelps Swett. Past coaches include Bill Kangas, who’s now the coach at Williams (Mass.) College; Mark Toof, who guided the Rebels to Division 2 titles in 1992-93 and 1993-94 before the program was elevated to Division 1; and Patrick Burke, a former player at Connecticut College who is now the principal at SBHS.

A superstar like John LeClair (St. Albans, Vt.) notwithstanding, Vermont does not have a reputation of producing Division 1 hockey players. The current UVM roster boasts only one homegrown player — senior forward Pete Massar (Williston, Vt.), a transfer from Clarkson.

On the SBHS title team, only Tommy Royer — who was named the state’s Mr. Hockey after posting 28-23-51 totals, and graduated as the school’s all-time scoring leader — is taking his career further, with the Boston Jr. Rangers of the Eastern Hockey League.

The first girls’ team at SBHS took the ice in 2000-01, and under coaches Jake Kunavelis and now Mickey Toof, it’s reached the state semifinals five times and the finals twice. It will team up with CVU this winter to field a cooperative team.

Vermont may not be known for producing hockey players. But in South Burlington, they’re producing hockey memories.

All without leaving the backyard.

“It’s just a hockey environment that’s very positive here in town,” said O’Day. “Great traditional rival with CVU. The CSB Cup. It’s just healthy.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @MikeZhe603
Email: mzhe@hockeyjournal.com