Things are much different this winter on the ice for the Hand boys hockey team.
The Tigers, who skated through a difficult 5-16 season during the 2017-18 campaign, are 11-2-1 this year and have a sizable lead in the CIAC Division III standings.
Part of the problem over the last few years for Hand has been the revolving door as far as the head coach goes. For numerous reasons, the Tigers are on their fourth head coach in six years. However, it looks like Hand has found the answer in former Amity assistant Brian Gonsalves.
Hand’s first loss came at the hands of Lyman Hall/H-K/Coginchaug on Dec. 26, while its only tie came at Brookfield/Bethel/Danbury on Jan. 5. The Tigers are also unbeaten in seven outings against Division I and II foes before Saturday night’s loss to Guilford.
“Being on the other bench in the 2014 Division II state championship (which Hand beat Amity in), to see them at 5-16 and in Division III, I wonder what happened here,” Gonsalves said. “I saw upperclassmen that had the ability and were itching for something special. After being hired last summer, I saw underclassmen who had talent and came from places where they had the talent to win, so I thought we could turn things around pretty quickly.”
That certainly has happened. Hand came out of the gate with three big wins, including a 5-4 victory over rival and 2018 Division II runner-up Guilford. That woke up the program.
“Last year wasn’t a good year for us,” tri-captain Michael McKeon said. “Coach Gonzo gave us a plan and everyone bought in right away. We knew how bad last year was and we definitely didn’t want to go out that way as seniors.”
No longer is Hand looked at as an easy game and a certain win by its opponents. In fact, it’s just the opposite as teams find the Tigers are formidable.
“The more we continue to play well people are going to be looking how to play us instead of looking at Hand as a game on the schedule,” Gonsalves said.
But with Hand in the middle of the hardest portion of its schedule, the Tigers have to maintain focus.
“We set some goals and we are on pace for them,” senior tri-captain Griffin Fitzmaurice said. “But we can’t let our record go to our heads.”
It helps with having a lot of new players that weren’t a part of the disappointment a year ago.
“We have a lot of new players who decided to play for us and half the team is completely new this year,” senior tri-captain Ian Rice said. “We have three really good lines and all of them could be our first line.”
Besides the three captains, among the other key players have been sophomores Tatum Fitzmaurice and Joe DeAngelis, plus third liners Teddy Licari and Ethan Massey and Logan Massey. Also, having some players who have been successful in other sports has helped. Thomas Ferrick and Brett Leckey of the CIAC Class L football championship team came on the ice two weeks into practice.
“They’ve been an incredible addition,” Gonsalves said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get them right away. Their addition was great as they are calm and collected and keep a level head.”
There’s no question the biggest surprise for Hand has been the performance of sophomore goaltender Eric Dillner, who has played goalie for less than 15 months after playing defense as an eighth grader.
“He came here in ninth grade and saw there was a senior goalie and no one after that,” Gonsalves said. “He got 11 starts last year and his numbers were pretty gaudy. The experience he gained as a freshman you don’t get anywhere else in the state. He’s progressed and has won us some games in net.”