By Ed Flaherty
Connor Irving found his comfort zone during the 2011-12 Massachusetts high school boys hockey season, and Beverly High School’s opponents paid the price.
Irving, a sophomore last year, was the 11th-leading scorer in Massachusetts with 58 points on 24 goals and 34 assists.
With that high level of success to build on, Irving is settling right back into that comfort zone as the 2012-13 high school season arrives.
“It’s all about confidence with me,” said the 5-foot-7, 170-pound Irving. “Right now I have a lot of confidence in myself and my teammates.”
Irving is No. 3 on the list of the state’s top returning scorers this year.
Ryan Ouimet, a Wahconah Regional High School senior forward, is the state’s top returning scorer (37 goals, 24 assists, 61 points), followed by Blue Hills Regional Technical School junior center Josh Edwards (26-34-60). The top scorer in the state in 2011-12 was Doug Sadler of South Hadley/Holyoke, who had 27 goals and 43 assists for 70 points.
Although gifted with a strong shot, Irving feels most comfortable setting up his teammates. In fact, Beverly assistant coach Justin Shairs says Irving needs to be prodded to look for his own shot at times.
“Early on in his career he was on a breakaway and he was looking to make the pass,” Shairs said. “(With) very few kids at this level do you have to keep telling them to shoot the puck.”
Shairs is an assistant coach at Beverly High School under Bob Gilligan, who is undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is hoping to return to the BHS bench in January.
As a former Beverly standout himself, Shairs has seen his share of outstanding performances from Panthers players, but said Irving’s 2011-12 campaign was special.
“I played with (former Beverly standout) Roger LeBlanc and he had one of the best seasons ever (at Beverly),” Shairs said. “But what Connor did as a sophomore was incredible.”
Irving’s 58-point season is the sixth-best single-season total at Beverly High School. LeBlanc, the school’s all-time leading scorer, had two of the best seasons in school history with 61 points in 1998-99 and 51 in 1997-98. Billy Gilligan tops the list with an 84-point season in 1971-72. Shairs is 12th on the list with a 43-point season in 1998-99.
Irving had 38 points (11 goals, 27 assists) as a freshman, giving him 85 career points in just two seasons with the Panthers.
Shairs said Bob Gilligan often compares Irving to Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who is known for his speed and quickness and deft puck-handling ability.
“He’s always moving,” Shairs said. “He makes everyone around him better. He’s a great shooter and a much better passer.”
Like St. Louis, Irving will often be one of the smaller players on the ice, but he doesn’t let his lack of size work against him. In fact, he tries to use it to his advantage.
“He’s not the biggest kid out there, but he skates like the wind,” Shairs said. “He’s two moves ahead of the other team. (Defenses) go after him because of his size but he’s just so quick he uses it to his advantage.”
Irving said his scoring prowess and lack of size often result in defenses trying to get physical with him.
‘Especially against the bigger teams,” he said. “I try to work through it and play my game.”
As one of the state’s top scorers — and the top returning scorer in Division 2 — Irving knows much is expected of him this season, but he knows he will have plenty of help from his Panther teammates.
“I was kind of surprised by the number of points I put up last year,” Irving said. “This year will be different. It’s not about one guy. We have so many guys. I think our scoring will be spread.”
Beverly had a slow start to its 2011-12 season but finished strong before falling to Saugus in the Division 2 North playoffs. The Panthers closed their season with a 14-6-1 record following their overtime loss in the opening round of the tournament.
“Last year was a pretty good year for us,” Shairs said. “We had a tough go at the beginning. We ended up going on a 10-game winning streak to close the season. We ran into a tough Saugus team in the tournament and I know the guys really took that tough, losing in OT. The guys really took that loss hard and it fueled their offseason work.”
“We jelled as a team last year even though we had some early struggles,” Irving said. “At the beginning of the season we had a lot of expectations. After the first game I had a lot of confidence and my confidence just kept growing.”
The Panthers have high expectations for the upcoming season, as Beverly lost just two players to graduation.
In addition to Irving’s return, Beverly also brings back senior captain Andrew Irving (Connor’s cousin), junior captain Matt Hamor and sophomore goaltender Tim Birarelli.
Connor Irving said his preference to pass has a lot to do with the talent around him.
“I did look to pass first,” he said. “My cousin Andrew has a really good shot. I like setting people up rather than taking the shot myself. I don’t have the best shot. I prefer to pass.”
Irving’s contributions on the ice are nearly matched by his impact off the ice. A team leader, Irving is a junior captain this year.
Shairs says Irving’s level-headed demeanor is the right fit for the Panthers.
“He’s pretty calm in the locker room and on the ice,” Shairs said. “It kind of has a good influence on the guys. The team looks to him when we’re in a tight spot on the ice. He never really loses his cool, but he’s not afraid to pull kids aside and talk to them. He does it the right way. The guys are almost like a little family and he’s part of the group. He keeps things all together. He’s the consummate team player.”
Already known as one of the state’s top scorers and always ready to help a teammate, Irving knows the biggest assist of the Beverly High School season could come in January when Coach Gilligan returns to the bench.
“Coach Gilligan is my godfather and is well-known and liked,” Irving said. “He’s really good with us and he’s great to play for. It’s great to play for him and it’s going to be a huge boost when he comes back.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.