NORTH ANDOVER — The St. John's Prep hockey team won't be playing in the Super 8 final at TD Garden on Sunday, and that hurts.
Notwithstanding the sting of last night's Super 8 semifinal loss to B.C. High at Merrimack College's Lawler Arena, the landscape of St. John's Prep hockey has changed forever the last two years.
Thanks to some supremely talented players with big dreams, faith in the Prep program and trust in Eagles head coach Kristian Hanson, St. John's has reached new heights in the Super 8.
Consider that in the 11 seasons from 1999-2010, the Prep totaled eight Super 8 tournament victories. But during the last two years, the Eagles racked up seven Super 8 wins, reached the program's first Super 8 final and advanced to the semis in back-to-back years for the first time.
That achievement speaks to the pride and determination of every player in an Eagles' sweater.
It also speaks to the Prep's top-end talent — and in hockey, top-end talent has options. The cloud of prep schools and junior leagues hovers over high school hockey like smog. The majority of the Eagles have rebuffed them, choosing to stay and build a legacy at St. John's.
Take captain Sam Kurker, a hulking power winger with a scholarship to Boston University and an NHL draft choice in his future. Virtually any hockey team in the country would have gladly had him, yet he stayed the course with the Eagles.
Kurker, who scored 31 goals and had 63 points this season, cited some advice from legendary BU coach Jack Parker — himself a former star at Catholic Memorial.
"Coach Parker wanted me to stay — he told me to play high school hockey, finish my high school education," said Kurker.
Last year's SJP captain, Colin Blackwell, is now a freshman forward on the Harvard hockey team and was drafted by the San Jose Sharks. Senior goaltender David Letarte will likely play in college, and senior defenseman Nick Pandelena, who will golf at Boston College, could too if he wasn't one of the region's best golfers.
"Colin stayed four years, Sam stayed four years, David ... I can go down the list," said Hanson. "Loyalty to our school and our program is important to us and we're very pleased those guys stayed."
The point for young skaters out there is clear: you can enjoy the Super 8, play high school hockey with your friends and still get your college opportunity — and potentially get drafted.
"I hope it sends a message to other kids that you don't have to leave," said Hanson. "Those guys are all going on to great things and they got to enjoy high school."
Packed student sections from both St. John's and B.C. High filled the arena last night and kept things lively with a variety of rivalry chants. That atmosphere can't be duplicated in a non-high school setting.
"The biggest difference (between high school and junior hockey) is the crowd," said Kurker. "This atmosphere makes it great. You see your buddies from school in the crowd, all the support. We really appreciate it."
Some 21 years after the Super 8 began, the Prep is still looking for its first championship. Yet with 34 total victories in its last two seasons — seven of those in the Super 8 — the Eagles are firmly in the conversation among the state's hockey elite.
Contributions from this year's seniors — Kurker, Pandelena, Letarte, defenseman John Ryan and goalie Jared Hynes — have raised the bar for what St. John's hockey is, and what it can be going forward.
"This was a packed house, the state semis with a chance to go to the Garden; it doesn't get much better," said Hanson. "We have so many kids coming back, our goal is to get here again."
If the 18 juniors and sophomores that St. John's dressed this winter follow the example of the Classes of 2011 and 2012, you can bet the Eagles will be Super 8 fixtures.
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Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.