By Phil Stacey
---- — A large part of my job in covering high school hockey on the North Shore for over 20 years isn’t just about tweeting out updates, reporting the final score or getting quotes from coaches and players.
It’s about observing what I see.
It’s not difficult to go to games and pick out who the area’s brightest stars are each winter. The Irvings and Koopmans, Pinhos and Strangies, Masseys and Biarellis are easy to spot; their on-ice play speaks for themselves.
It’s much more difficult to spot the players whose contributions are vital to any team, but may not show up solely on the scoreboard or the final stats page.
They’re the Unsung Heroes.
Today, we look at 10 such players, guys whose names are probably not of the household variety but are, for any number of reasons you’ll read about below, indispensible to their teams.
In alphabetical order, they are:
Andrew Bisconti, Peabody: They call the junior forward ‘Biscuits’, which already qualifies as one of the best nicknames around. Better than that moniker, however, is the way Bisconti has raised his level of competition throughout the course of the season, to the point where he plays each game with more grit than the coarsest piece of sandpaper.
The Tanners don’t bank on Bisconti to score (he has 1 goal this season), but rather to doggedly forecheck on every shift, get under the skin of his opponents and, essentially, cause mayhem without being whistled for an infraction. At just 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, Bisconti has a motor that won’t stop and is willing to sacrifice his body for the greater good, no matter the situation.
Jared Brann, Masconomet: How, do you ask, is a first line center, one who is his team’s third-leading scorer with 11 points, considered an unsung hero? Glad you asked.
In his first season with the Chieftains’ varsity after spending the last two winters on the junior varsity, Brann began the year on the third line, used as a checker and penalty killer. But when the opportunity presented itself, Brann seized advantage and hasn’t let up yet. Certainly he put the work in during the offseason to improve himself, but there’s quite a bit of talent there, too. In a game earlier this season against Danvers, Brann stood out as someone who was strong on his skates, used his leverage well and could snap off shots in traffic without any issues. Another forechecking demon, Brann is a huge reason why the Chieftains are making a late-season push for the playoffs.
Jerome Cappadona and Max Goldstein, Pingree: Young squads having a hard time picking up victories need leadership from their upperclassmen in the worst way, and that’s what Cappadona and Goldstein provide. The Highlanders’ two senior captains, both of whom hail from Lynnfield, chose to stay after graduation and transfers meant a total overhaul to the program this winter, and their younger teammates will be better in the long run because of their influence.
Cappadona, a football star who was part of championship teams at Pingree, is a burly forward who exudes leadership in the hard-nosed way in which he plays. Goldstein, a defenseman, plays a lot of minutes and is responsible for helping many of his younger teammates learn on the fly in the high level world of prep school hockey. Both have gone, in the words of head coach Gino Khachadourian, “above and beyond their duties as captains and have been able to keep this team intact.”
Zac Cuzner, Marblehead: Big (6-foot-1, 185 pounds), strong and athletic, Cuzner — who will play college football at Wesleyan — is no shrinking violet. He can play a mean, nasty game in his own end if the situation dictates it, and is perfectly comfortable jumping up into the play and adding to the Headers’ vast offensive arsenal.
But because there are so many weapons at his team’s disposal, Cuzner can sometimes get lost in the mix. That’s a dangerous mistake to make if you’re wearing a different color sweater, because Cuzner can plant you on your back with a well-timed check, block a shot to create a rush up-ice, or simply forbid you from getting into a prime scoring area in front of his goaltender. He’s got a plus-minus of +15 to boot, a player the Marblehead coaching staff is comfortable sending onto the ice in any situation.
Shea Doyle, Danvers: The senior defenseman doesn’t have a goal or an assist this winter ... and that’s just fine with the Falcons. If and when he does it’ll be a nice bonus, but it’s not the reason Doyle is entrusted to play a regular shift with two different defense partners, on the penalty kill and especially late in games when Danvers has the lead.
Doyle’s ‘points’ come in the form of a blocked shot, breaking up a scoring play or delivering a big hit to swing momentum. An intelligent player who has the off-ice grades to prove it, he has seamlessly worked with both Ryan Cassidy and Steve Ganley at the other point without a dropoff in his play. A much different player than his older brother Jack was, Shea Doyle has grown into a vital member of the Falcons’ blueline corps.
Evan Leclerc, St. John’s Prep: When you’re in the conversation of the state’s best hockey teams, defense is likely playing a big part in that. The Eagles have given up just 20 goals in 16 games, and Leclerc is one of the pistons that keeps the Prep’s defensive engine firing on all eight cylinders.
Partners with captain Brent Murray on the back line, Leclerc is always on the ice against the best forwards that B.C. High, Catholic Memorial, Malden Catholic and every other heavyweight on the Prep’s schedule has to offer. A workhorse who is one of the best penalty killers in the area, Leclerc is always on the ice in the late stages of crucial games — there’s no better compliment you can pay to a defenseman. To top if off, he’s the Prep’s second-leading scorer among defensemen with a goal and five helpers.
Sean Munzing, Beverly: It’s impossible to play mistake-free hockey ... but Munzing comes pretty close on a night-in, night-out basis. Solid, steady, dependable ... they’re all apt descriptions of the Panthers’ junior defenseman, a varsity regular for three years who is the embodiment of a selfless teammate.
Beverly’s coaches have made it clear that Munzing is clearly the team’s most improved player from a year ago; he’s now a difference maker in the way he carries himself on the ice and in his play. Alongside playing partner Jack Morency, he makes all the plays and is intelligent enough not to force plays, but rather takes what the opponent gives him. Another man-down mainstay, Munzing’s commitment to protecting his own house speaks volumes when you look at the scant number of goals allowed (10) by the Panthers.
Joey Silva, Swampscott: Centering the Big Blue’s checking line, Silva prides himself on being a pesky player who is, quite simply, hard for opponents to play against. A physical pivot who can draw penalties, works well in the defensive zone, is strong at the dot and flies in on the forecheck, Silva knows his role — and does it very well.
Silva is versatile; he’s moved up to wing on the second line at times this season when injuries and sickness left vacancies in the top six and looked very comfortable doing so. He’s even chipped in offensively with five goals and four assists. But he’s at his best in the role that was seemingly designed for him, creating havoc on the third line.
Grant Thompson, Salem: Yes, a backup goaltender can be an unsung hero. Just ask the Witches, who benefit greatly from Thompson’s unselfish, whatever-is-best-for-the-team mentality. It certainly isn’t easy being the No. 2 guy between the pipes to a teammate who also happens to be in the same class (in this case, Brett Harring), often coming into games late when the outcome has already been decided. But for someone who could be a starter on several other teams in the area, Thompson never complains. He’s captain material, a leader on and off the ice that his Salem brethren can proudly call their teammate.
Matt Townsend, Bishop Fenwick: The only freshman on this list has to have made an impact to earn his spot here, and Townsend certainly has. The Beverly native has learned the varsity ropes and improved greatly since the season began over two months ago. Dependability is a big part of Townsend’s game; he gets the job done not only in the defensive zone, but is also a contributor to Fenwick’s offensive scheme.
When teammate Nick Finan missed a few games due to sickness recently, Townsend slid into the top line center role alongside top point producers Drew Thibodeau and Mike Napolitano and assimilated himself nicely. He’s a smart player with a bright future.
The Blue Line Report, a column on North Shore high school hockey, appears each Wednesday during the winter season in The Salem News. Contact sports editor Phil Stacey at email@example.com or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.