May 21, 2013

HockeyTown: Wilmington, Massachusetts

By Mike Zhe

The WHS Wildcats celebrate their state title at TD Garden. (Photo: Joe Brown Digital Photography)

Like every other fan in the region, the members of the Wilmington High School hockey team applauded when the Boston Bruins ended their Stanley Cup drought in 2011.

What they didn’t know at the time was that the applause would soon be a two-way street.

They’ve been playing varsity hockey at Wilmington High School for more than 60 years, but this current stretch is one of the program’s most glorious ones. The Wildcats have won back-to-back Division 2 championships — the first in program history — and brought more accolades to a town that traces its hockey history way back.

“The difference in doing it the second time,” said the program’s longtime coach, Steve Scanlon, “was that we had a lot coming back from the first title team, so the expectations were high right from the beginning. That put a lot of pressure on the team.”

Just like the Bruins had some adversity to overcome before the puck dropped on the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Wildcats had their obstacles to get past along the way this winter. An opening-night loss at Woburn knocked them down a peg — “a wake-up call,” said Scanlon — but they regrouped and were firing on all cylinders once the playoffs hit.

Propelled by a dynamic top line that included captain Cam Owens (24-17-41), the leading scorer in school history, Brendan McDonough (26-25-51) and Jake Rogers (13-14-27); plus top defenseman Brian Pickett and goalie Drew Foley (nine shutouts); the Wildcats saved their best performances for the end.

After a ragged, 5-3 win against Stoneham in the playoff opener, they came from behind to beat Boston Latin. They then overpowered Lincoln-Sudbury (6-0) and Danvers (7-2) to win sectionals, and closed out a second title by beating Franklin, 4-0, at TD Garden.

“Having been there once, the kids were eager for the tournament,” said Scanlon. “They knew their way around a little bit.”

It was also more proof that the Wildcats belong in the competitive Middlesex League, which they joined prior to 2011-12 after 15 years in the Cape Ann League.

The back-to-back titles even caught the attention of members the Black and Gold, several of whom, including coach Claude Julien, offered video congratulations. Wilmington High School shares not just a successful recent track record with the Bruins, but also a facility.

Even before he was a resident of Wilmington, UMass-Lowell standout Joe Pendenza would make the trip to Ristuccia Arena from Everett, often with his father, to watch the Bruins hold practices or conduct rookie camps.

“I saw players like Phil Kessel out there, and that was the coolest thing,” said Pendenza. “When they’re practicing in Boston, they’re harder to access, but when they’re in Wilmington, they’re right there.”

The Bruins’ future in Wilmington is uncertain after the current lease runs out. There has been talk of moving their practices to a facility closer to Boston, but nothing concrete yet.

“Frankly, Cam (Neely) and I have been collaborating a bit on what should be the best facility for us moving forward,” said Bruins principal Charlie Jacobs at the conclusion of last season. “We batted and considered Wilmington around a bit and, obviously, also explored some other locations.”

“We’ve gotten used to seeing them there,” said Scanlon. “After they won the Stanley Cup, to be skating in the same rink with them is kind of a big deal.”

Include the Boston Blades as another championship tenant. The Blades became the first U.S. champion of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in March, dethroning the Montreal Stars. Local players like Hilary Knight (Hanover, N.H.), Kate Buesser (Wolfeboro, N.H.), captain Caitlin Cahow (Branford, Conn.), Meghan Duggan (Danvers, Mass.), Kacey Bellamy (Westfield, Mass.) and Cherie Hendrickson (Boxford, Mass.) all played big roles.

The Boston Shamrocks, an elite women’s club, also call Ristuccia home. Alum Dakota Wentworth (Carlisle, Mass.) is currently playing at Division 1 runner-up Boston University, and others are at Women’s Hockey East programs like UConn, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Wilmington's Joseph Pendenza tied for the UMass-Lowell scoring lead. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

In the men’s college game, there were few places this season that shone brighter than UMass-Lowell, which won Hockey East regular-season and tournament titles, and reached the Frozen Four for the first time in program history. Town resident Pendenza was a big part of that, finishing tied for the team lead in scoring with 38 points. Playing in a Frozen Four was great, he said, but winning the Hockey East championship over Boston University, 1-0, at TD Garden may be the moment he remembers most fondly.

“Winning the regional was huge,” he said. “But for me, being a local guy, winning Hockey East against BU was enormous. Growing up, I watched BC and BU win it every year.”

The River Hawks, who lose just two senior regulars and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, who turned pro, figure to have a say in the league for years to come. Pendenza says the focus has already turned to 2013-14.

“Coach (Norm Bazin) says you either have to improve or you’re gonna get worse,” he said. “It’s on an upward swing but we need to make sure it keeps going that way.”

Though he attended Arlington Catholic, Pendenza, too, is aware of what Wilmington High School has accomplished just down the road the past couple years, because his younger brother goes there. “He said the games are always packed and they have a great atmosphere there,” he said.

“It’s grown bigger the last couple of years but we’ve always had a good following,” said Scanlon. “They’re like a seventh player for us.”

A generation ago, they were cheering for players like Teddy Moran, who went on to play at Army and last year was inducted into Wilmington High School’s Hall of Fame.

Today, they’re celebrating championships — one a couple years ago by their co-tenants at Ristuccia Arena. And now a couple by themselves.

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

Twitter: @MikeZhe603