Dr. Tom Neagle has never been a big fan of winter, especially when it comes to shoveling snow.
But the guy loves hockey, working with youth and the combination is why he has reached a milestone as he enters his 20th season as chairman of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Ice Hockey Committee.
The CIAC Ice Hockey Committee is the governing arm of high school hockey (public schools) in the state.
For Neagle, rules changes over the years to help improve the safety of the players has been an important component of his position and the ice hockey committee overall. But the addition of a third division in the 2005-06 season, the growth of the co-op system to allow teams with low roster numbers to continue and be competitive, and moving state tournament semifinals and finals to Ingalls Rink in New Haven are among the positive changes that stick out for Neagle the past 20 years.
CIAC ice hockey tournament championships were held for years at the XL Center with the last one being held in 1997. The finals moved to the now-defunct New Haven Coliseum in 1998 and started its current run at Ingalls Rink in 1999, which also hosts semifinals for all divisions.
“Where has the time gone,” Neagle said. “I joined the Ice Hockey Committee in 1988 when I was a vice principal at Notre Dame-West Haven. At that time, the Connecticut high school hockey world was truly centered around the greater New Haven area and the CIAC (headquarters) was located in a home off Whitney Avenue in Hamden (headquarters are in Cheshire today). A lot has changed since then and much for the good.
“Since 1996, when I assumed the chairmanship of the committee from Father Bill Charbonneau, we’ve seen a greater balance of power in high school hockey. There have been a number of teams from the greater Hartford area and from Fairfield County that have emerged and sustained strong programs. That balance of power, I believe, has been in part due the institution of three divisions and the thoughtful work the committee has done placing teams in appropriate divisions.”
Neagle said the CIAC’s relationship with Yale University and the staff at Ingalls Rink that spans his tenure has been another major factor in the stability and strength of high school hockey in Connecticut.
“The mantra of players statewide has become ‘make it to Yale,’” Neagle said. “And when they do, players and coaches are treated to as close to a Division I college experience as one can imagine. For many of our players and coaches, playing at Yale is their “field of dreams.”
The commitment to playing state tournament semifinals and finals at Ingalls Rink will continue this season.
“Jeremy Makins, the Yale athletic administrator who manages Ingalls Rink, joined us for our captains and coaches meeting and let everyone know they are happy to continue hosting our semis and finals,” Neagle said. “We are excited to be returning to Ingalls once again because it is an iconic venue.”
Neagle believes none of these accomplishments would be possible without what he calls the “hockey fraternity,” which includes players and coaches, National Ice Hockey Officials Association sanctioned officials, rink managements and the CIAC Ice Hockey Committee.
“The linchpins that keep the lines of communication open among all members of that fraternity are Joe Tonelli (CIAC executive staff member and director of the CIAC Officials’ Association), our tournament director George Hall, Steve Richetelli who is president of the Connecticut chapter of NIHOA, and Sal Follo (Milford hockey coach) who is chairman of the CHSCA Ice Hockey Coaches Committee,” Neagle said. “Their work has been invaluable in keeping ice hockey strong and stable over the past two decades.
“The relationships I’ve mentioned have allowed us to share a vision for what high school hockey can and should be, fast, highly skillful and hard hitting, yet always reflecting good sportsmanship and a mutual respect. We try to remember it’s our role as adults who are involved to give our players the best competitive experience we can. In doing so, they learn more than how to score or stop goals, they learn life skills.”
Tonelli said Neagle’s hands-on approach has been his forte as chairman.
“Tom’s passion and love for the sport, and his hands-on leadership style and work ethic has been a tremendous asset to the CIAC and high school ice hockey in Connecticut,” Tonelli said. “He has always been an advocate for promoting the highest standards of sportsmanship and safety in Connecticut high school hockey, and was instrumental in putting regulations in place to ensure that the game is played in a first class manner.
“Tom also established a highly successful preseason captains and coaches meeting. It is sponsored by the CIAC Ice hockey Committee and the NIHOA Ice Hockey officials to get everyone on the same page and open the lines of communication among players, coaches, officials and the CIAC, prior to the start of each season.”
Neagle, who is now an assistant principal at Glastonbury High, never gave much thought 20 years ago to how long he would stay on as chairman of the CIAC Ice Hockey Committee.
“I’ve actually been thinking about the future of Connecticut high school hockey quite a bit lately,” Neagle said. “Economics continues to be a major factor along with safety on and off the ice. While those of us committed to high school hockey have little control over the economy or choices to attend non-CIAC schools or to play for non-CIAC affiliated teams, we will continue to bring the same commitment to offering our players a high level of competition and sportsmanship.
“And when all is said and done, there is nothing like representing your school as an athlete. Each year brings new challenges and each new challenge, like the implementation of a three-division format, co-ops, and rules changes just showed up on the horizon. My horizon today is this season and the upcoming playoffs.”
Six teams change divisions
Six teams have switched divisions this season. Last season’s Division II champion Fairfield Warde/Ludlowe moved to Division I; Staples/Weston/Shelton, New Fairfield/Immaculate and Westhill/Stamford moved from Division III to Division II; and Wilton and Newington/Berlin/Manchester moved from Division II to Division III.