SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 30, 2013

Fantasy Matchups: Blades of Steel State champion hockey squads Danvers, Marblehead would be an epic ice battle

By Phil Stacey
Sports editor

---- — Ten years and two days separated the moment they became champions.

A multitude of similarities helped make both squads all-time greats.

The 2000-01 Danvers Falcons, Division 2 state champions.

The 2010-11 Marblehead Headers, Division 3 state champions.

They are two of the greatest public school hockey teams in North Shore history, clubs rich in history, depth, goaltending, clutch scoring and with terrific minds behind the bench.

So who’s to say which one was better?

“I’m not too familiar with the ‘01 Danvers team, but I definitely think we could match anyone’s depth,” said Jake Kulevich, a dominant defenseman and senior captain for the champion Headers. He’ll skate Division 1 college hockey for Cornell University this winter. “Also, if they had a top first line, well, we played a really sound game defensively and had a goalie behind us (Tony Cuzner) who would come up with big saves when we needed him to.

“We weren’t afraid to play anybody. We had a lot of confidence in that locker room that if we played our game, we would put ourselves in a position to win no matter who we played.”

The young men who skated for the Falcons, now in their late 20s, naturally disagree.

“We were nasty and we were skilled,” said Kyle McCullough, the team’s junior first line center and leading scorer that season. “Our top six skaters and Sco (goalie Scott Bevan) could’ve all played college hockey. I’d put us up against anyone.”

Two towns where hockey pumps through its sporting veins and is a birthright for many boys who strap on the blades at an early age, dreaming of the day they can wear their high school’s color.

Let’s break these two state titlists down and see what falls out of the hockey bag.

FALCONS FLEW

Simply making the playoffs was a foregone conclusion in Danvers at the turn of the century; the Falcons had qualified in each of the previous 12 seasons. That alone wouldn’t satiate these Falcons; they knew they had all of the elements needed to make a run at a state title in 2001.

By and large it was a young, exhuberant team. Only five seniors — all-star defenseman Nick McCormick, forward Derek Richardson and the team’s three captains, right wing Matty Valentine, blueliner Adam O’Keefe and the ever-talkative Bevan in goal — donned the Falcon crest. Seven juniors helped beef up the squad while the sophomore class, with nine players, were the best represented; five saw regular action.

“All we thought about was winning,” said McCullough, who went on to a stellar college career at UMass Dartmouth and played professionally for four seasons. “For me personally, it was the tightest group I’ve ever been around.”

McCullough teamed with fellow junior Bryan Duggan, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound wrecking ball of a left wing, and highly skilled sophomore speedster Ryan Hayes to form one of the North Shore’s best-ever top lines in modern history. They wound up accounting for over 62 percent of Danvers’ 114 goals, and by the time their high school careers were over they ranked second (Hayes, 160), third (McCullough, 151) and sixth (Duggan, 142) on the school’s all-time scoring list.

“It was more of a read-and-react situation with Bryan and Ryan,” said McCullough, who recently moved back to Danvers with his wife, Jordan, after spending a few years in Brooklyn. “They were big and good along the walls, and we were all good defensively. We could all shoot, we could all score and we all saw the ice well. Bryan brought some nastiness to our line, too, and me and Hayesy could finish.”

They were sometimes called the Flying Falcons, but that moniker could’ve just as easily been the Physical Falcons; there wasn’t a set of boards that an opponent couldn’t be driven into.

“You could throw the puck in the corner, “Hayes remembered, “and Bryan would mop someone up, Kyle had all the speed in the world and I’d put it away when I had the chance out front.”

It was a mistake when teams overlooked the Falcons’ second line, with dangerous Matt Gotts centering Valentine and junior Justin Dube. “Gottsy didn’t get the credit he deserved. He could really put the puck in the net,” said Hayes. Richardson, along with sophomores Paul Citroni and Chris Gaffney, saw the bulk of time on the checking unit.

The 6-foot, 200-pound McCormick, who opted to play junior hockey as an 11th grader, decided to rejoin the Falcons in 2000-01 and it proved huge; he not only was a heady player, but a terrific skater and could contribute offensively and play lockdown D.

“The first game he played, you could tell he was a beast,” said Hayes. “He had a heavy shot and a mean streak; he had no problems clearing the front of net and wasn’t afraid to take a penalty.”

Sophomore Jeff Bettencourt became a major minute muncher that season while skating with McCormick; he too knew how to use body positioning to deliver a big hit and swing momentum in the Falcons’ favor. Junior Chris Horn, sophomores Billy Langmaid and Chris Manley and O’Keefe, the senior captain, completed this tight D-man unit.

But it was Bevan who was, said Hayes, “the absolute glue of the team.” Fiery as he was focused, Bevan was usually the most vocal Falcon and didn’t lose any of his non-stop energy once he hit the ice. He and Hayes were the team jokesters who kept their teammates loose and relaxed.

‘THE FULL HERB BROOKS’

The architect of the Danvers dynasty was its head coach, Kevin Flynn. A superstar defenseman during his own playing days at Matignon High and later Salem State, Flynn had made the Falcons into one of the best programs in Eastern Mass., a team that seemingly always had speed, skill, snarl and a winner’s mentality.

“Flynnie was a master motivator,” said Hayes, who remains the Falcons’ all-time leader in playoff scoring with 26 points. “He’d say, ‘If you play Danvers High hockey the right way, it shouldn’t matter who you’re playing. We never went into traps or different schemes; we did what worked for us all season.”

Assistants like Mike Clifford, Brian Thibodeau, Duke St. Pierre, Kevin Brown, Arthur Orechia and goalie coach Todd Lampert made a great team even better.

The season actually got off to a sluggish start for the Falcons, who tied Marblehead (3-3) and shockingly lost to Lynn English (3-1) before ripping off nine wins in their next 10 contests. They split with eventual Northeastern Conference champion Saugus and the team they tied for second place, Winthrop (winning both games on the road); they also gave Flynn his 200th win behind the DHS bench in a satisfying 6-1 win over arch rival Gloucester at Salem State on Feb. 17.

Danvers entered the Division 2 North state tournament at 13-4-3, the fifth seed in a 15-team field. But where they were slotted mattered little; by this point, there was only one thing that would ultimately satisfy the Falcons. “It would’ve been a disappointment if we didn’t win it all,” admitted McCullough. “We were a well-oiled machine by that point and would run over anyone that got in our way.”

The Falcons got used to wearing their blue road uniforms in the playoffs; four of their five postseason victories that winter came against squads that had both better records and higher seeds than they did.

Surviving a first round scare against Bishop Fenwick (4-3), the Blue-and-White started to roll. They beat Saugus, 4-2, in the quarterfinals before easily dispatching top-seeded Wilmington, 5-2, in the North semifinals. It was on to the sectional final at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena, and McCullough’s empty net goal sealed a 4-2 triumph over second-seeded Lynnfield — and Danvers’ first trip to the state final in seven years.

Waiting for them at the TD Garden was Boston Latin, the top seed out of the South who had won 17 straight games during the season and took a 20-1-1 mark into the championship tilt. A lethargic first period by the Falcons, one in which Duggan was speared and temporarily left the ice while his teammates seemed to be tentative on this grandest of stages, set the stage for an epic between-periods rant by the normally mild-mannered St. Pierre.

“Dukie is a great guy, but he can be downright scary when he’s upset,” said McCullough. “He pulled the full Herb Brooks, flipping over a table and going nuts. But his message got through; this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, and we couldn’t just let it slip away.”

Three times Boston Latin took a one-goal lead — and three times Danvers came back to tie it on goals by Hayes and two by McCullough, the last of those with 2:37 to play. With just under a minute to go Duggan got the puck along the left wing boards, sped into the Boston Latin zone and flung a shot on net that hit twine, giving the Falcons a 4-3 lead and, seconds later, its second state championship.

Duggan led the team in playoff scoring with 13 points in five games; McCullough was close behind with 11 and Hayes added eight. As a trio that first line finished 2000-01 with a combined 71 goals, 98 assists and 169 points; to put that in perspective, six of the 11 boys hockey teams covered regularly by this newspaper didn’t come close to approaching 71 goals last winter. (That’s right; entire teams).

McCullough had one of the great individual seasons in DHS hockey history with 37 goals and 64 points. Duggan led in assists (43) and was second with 56 points, while Hayes’ contributions (21 goals, 28 assists) were plentiful. Gotts (9-14-23, including 3 big goals in the playoffs) and Valentine (7-12-19) were no slouches, either; McCormick (5-21-26) and Bettencourt (0-12-12) showed why they were regarded as excellent two-way defensemen.

Bevan wound up playing all but 60 minutes that season, going 18-4-3 with a 2.11 goals-against average, .907 save percentage and four shutouts. He is the school’s all-time leader in career victories, with 37.

“To this day, the camaraderie on that team, it’s still strong. Half those guys were at my wedding this summer,” said Hayes, now 28 and a physical education teacher in Danvers. “A lot of us played college hockey, but you never get that feeling back you had of playing with your high school buddies. We did something none of us will ever forget.”

HEADERS WERE FOCUSED

Marblehead was also a team on a mission. Ten seniors who had been on the varsity since their freshmen season had already experienced a bounty of riches in their careers: three NEC South crowns, a pair of Division 3 North titles, the chance to play a game under the lights at Fenway Park against Winthrop. But the one thing they all craved still eluded them: skating on the Garden ice, championship hardware in hand.

“We were playing together since freshman year, so when Coach Jackson and (assistant coach Mark) Tarmey gave us all chances to play as freshmen, we tried our best. And after four years of jelling and meshing together, it paid off when we won that championship,” said hulking defenseman Ben Koopman, now a junior at Holy Cross.

The Headers’ depth was simply amazing; a dozen players had at least 15 points that season, including all three scoring lines and its top three defensemen. There were also 10 players who had a plus-minus rating of +20 or better (led by Koopman’s ridiculous +38), unheard of for a public school hockey team.

Ryan Dempsey, who led the team in both goals (24) and points (47), and Chris McLeod (22-17-39) were two senior centers who saw the ice brilliantly and knew when to carry the puck into the offensive zone, when to dish it off and when to dump it into the corners and set up shop. Three of their classmates — Alex Whitmore (7-20-27), Hunter Graves (11-11-22) and Tyler Gelineau (4-11-15) skated with them on the top two lines, as did junior left wing Austin Haley (16-11-27).

The third line was not only their biggest in terms of size, but also capable of lighting up the scoreboard too; skilled freshman portsider Tom Koopman (4-12-16) lined up with sophomores Ian Maag (8-7-15) at center and Tyler Bates (10-8-18) on the right side to form a trio that could hop over the boards at any time against any other line and more than hold their own.

As strong as Marblehead was offensively, however, defense was this team’s bread and butter.

The graceful Kulevich, at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, combined speed and power to become one of the dominant reargards in Eastern Mass.; he finished with 32 points. Ben Koopman (Kulevich’s cousin) was an absolute monster at 6-foot-3 and 263 pounds, but was surpsingly agile on his skates and was never, ever out of position. He, too, could spark the offense, as his 3-26-29 line attests.

Hunter Whitmore, Alex’s twin brother, was another senior standout on the back line (3-14-17); paired with Kulevich, they kept opponents from crossing into the Headers’ zone like border guards on patrol. Freshman Liam Gillis certainly belonged in the top four and found a home partnered with Ben Koopman; senior Brenden Lydon and sophomore Ben Katzman were the third pairing.

Calm, cool and collected on the outside, Cuzner was the last line of defense in goal. In a position that has produced some of Marblehead’s greatest-ever players, the senior etched his name among the greats with a 17-3-2 season, turning in a 1.97 GAA and three shutouts.

“A few keys to our success was definitely the way we came together as a team throughout the season,” said Kulevich. “We all got along great and pushed each other to accomplish the goals we had set coming into the season.

“I also think we had great depth; each line brought something different to the game. We never found ourselves relying on anyone to take over. We all had confidence in one another and the coaches’ system that if we just played hard, we would be successful.”

They were. With few hiccups along the way (a 5-3 setback at Lynn two days before Christmas was a real wake up call), the Headers breezed to another NEC South crown, entered the playoffs as a No. 2 seed and set about claiming what they felt was rightfully theirs. They dispatched Latin Academy (5-3), Dracut (5-1) and finally top-seeded Shawsheen (6-2) for the North title. In that Shawsheen game, Marblehead actually rolled out five defensemen on the power play; that’s how confident they were not only in their systems, but also their talent level.

At Harvard University’s Bright Center, they survived a late rally by Pembroke to finally prevail in the state semifinal, 3-2, before heading to the Garden for the program’s third state title appearance. Taking on Western Mass. champ Westfield, they fell behind 2-1 after one period before exploding for four second-period goals, winning 6-3 behind a goal and three assists from McLeod in an outstanding final-game-of-his-career performance.

Following the title victory, the Header seniors finished a combined 67-25-10 over their four years. They pointed then, and now, to their coaching staff — Mark Tarmey, Tom Colby, Gary Conn, Pat Flynn and head coach Bob Jackson — as being a huge reason why they achieved as much as they did.

“Our coaches made us successful. We had some of the best coaches, if not the best in the league,” said Koopman.

“It was the common goal of that senior class to win a state championship from the time they were freshmen,” said Colby, “and they took all the necessary steps to do so.”

So who would prevail if they matched up against one another?

Would the Headers’ size and ability to roll line after line out wear down Danvers? Would the Falcons’ top tier talent be able to break away from any complex schemes that Marblehead would throw at them? Whose hunger for victory would be greater?

These are questions only the mythical hockey gods can answer. For the rest of us, though, it’s a enigmatic exercise in comparing two of the area’s best ever public school hockey champions.