PEABODY -- If you could go back in time, to the day before Thanksgiving at Connolly Park in Peabody, and tell 15-year-old Matt Mello that he'd be in that same spot, organizing this very same street hockey tournament, in 20 years he most likely would not have believed it.

And yet this event, known as "The Turkey Cup" has endured. The world has changed around them, they've grown from kids and teenagers to college students and full-blown adults, but for one day a year two dozen or so friends still meet up at the same street hockey court to do it all again.

"It started because what else were we going to do after the half-day of school the day before Thanksgiving? Everyone rode their bikes or walked down to the park to play," recalled Mello, who is now a teacher and baseball coach in Peabody.

The scene is generally straight out of any 1990's kids sports movie like 'The Sandlot' or 'Mighty Ducks.' Since skilled goalies are hard to come by, they are appointed team captains. The rest of the players gather by the fence and are drafted. Some years there are four teams, sometimes six or eight.

A round-robin schedule is organized and the tournament proceeds in a World Cup style. The top few in the standings after four-or-so games advance to semi's and finals. In that sense, it's an endurance contest -- there's a ton of hockey played in just a few hours time and winning the fabled Turkey Cup is as much about who can still stand by the end as it is about who has the most skills.

"It's definitely worth the aches and the Advil the next day to get together and relive that fun we had playing street hockey growing up," said Eric Liberti, who in the tourney's early years fashioned an official trophy that's essentially a big silver urn.

"Maybe the greatest thing I've ever created," he said with a laugh. "Honestly, I didn't think we'd ever be going this for 20 years."

The Turkey Cup stretches across generations, largely because of siblings. Mello's younger brother, Danny, and his group of friends quickly became tourney mainstays. Then James Noftle's younger brother, Ryan, found his way onto the court and opened up an entirely new generation to the pre-Thanksgiving tradition.

"Being a kid that idolized it, I was so mad they wouldn't let me play when I was younger, being that little brother," said Ryan "Noodles" Noftle. "Then getting in, becoming part of that tradition, was awesome."

Although some of their moms might disagree -- arguments started in the Cup would sometimes spill over to Thanksgiving Day, as tends to happen with brothers in competition.

"There was some serious sibling rivalry at the Turkey Day table," said James Noftle, who is among the tourney's all-time leaders with four Cups. "It's amazing because it's brought multiple age groups of guys together. I look forward to it every year. There's nothing like playing some puck with the guys you grew up with."

The players come from all walks of school and life. Some were trained hockey players -- future Peabody High Hall of Famers like Noftle and the Three Amigos plus varsity all-stars like Billy Craig and Pat Yeo were seen as ringers but didn't always win. Others like Liberti, an absolute sniper, Matt Proodian and Matt Ryan were the classic after-school all-stars. Others were stars in other sports, like the Mello brothers who were both college baseball players.

"Guys want to have the bragging rights over their buddies and rivals for a whole year," Matt Mello said. "It's a fun little tournament until the last two minutes of a playoff game. Then all of a sudden everyone turns the compete on and you're a 12-year-old playing like crazy for a Cup. It's an amazing thing to watch."

"There's so much pride and tradition," added Mike Connors. "There's no better feeling than lifting that Cup and rubbing it in your buddies faces the whole year."

The group went all out for this 20th anniversary. A banner and T-shirts were made, listing all of the previous 19 winners. One former player, Nick Tringale, is the artist who draws the covers for one of America's most popular podcasts (Pardon My Take). He chipped in a special logo for the anniversary, giving these friends a taste of the big time.

"It definitely isn't showing any signs of slowing down," said Danny Mello. "This year might've been the best turnout."

You might figure that as people grow up and gain responsibilities, stuff like street hockey takes a back seat. Not for these guys, who relish turning back the clock once a year around the holidays.

"It's tuned from an after school event to a perpetual day you take off from work," said Yeo. "There's a core group of guys that have kept it alive. It's all worth it when you get to hoist that Cup and get your name engraved -- in Sharpie."

How much longer can it go? Who knows. All these guys are planning to be part of Turkey Cup XXI next year. Many have become fathers ... and the chance their kids could play sometime around Turkey Cup XXX? Who would say no to that?

"We're all adults with kids and jobs and that one day a year we can turn it back. I think that's what I'm most proud of," said Matt Mello. "It's crazy to even consider.

"Who does 20 years of anything anymore?"

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Assistant sports editor of The Salem News, blanketing the North Shore with the best coverage you'll find. Football fiend, track guru, seam-head, goaltending aficionado, history buff, stat geek. Allons-Y. #StrikeOutALS

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