CHESHIRE — Five Darien hockey players organized a protest held at the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference office parking lot on Wednesday in response to the CIAC’s decision to cancel remaining winter tournament games due to the coronavirus health issue.
The protest drew an estimated crowd of 500 student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors and parents.
Darien hockey players Max Sharp, Cole Branca, Jack Massey, Matt Fiorita and Bennett McDermott all had mixed feelings with the result of the protest and the effort to convince the CIAC to reverse its decision. They were elated by the large turnout at the protest, but disappointed they couldn’t have a meeting with CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini.
“We started organizing and getting the word out for this protest after we saw the online petition started by (former Fairfield Prep hockey player) Jake Walker to get the CIAC to reverse its decision to cancel games,” Branca said. Walker started the petition as soon as the CIAC made its announcement on Tuesday morning and by Wednesday afternoon the petition had more than 92,000 signatures. “When the five of us saw that petition we felt we needed to do something too and decided to organize a protest at the CIAC.
“All day on Tuesday the five of us just kept reaching out to other sports captains around the state on Instagram and Facebook and other social media,” Branca said. “We asked them to reach out to other athletes at their school, coaches and parents and athletes at other schools around them to come to the CIAC office and join the protest. We thought we’d get some people to show up, but to see hundreds of people here is amazing, it’s really unbelievable.”
Athletes, coaches and parents from high school teams statewide showed up for the protest with homemade signs. Most of the signs had the slogan “Let Us Play.” The one disappointment for the Darien hockey players was not being able to meet with Lungarini for a face-to-face discussion.
“We, just the five of us, wanted to go inside the CIAC and meet with the executive director,” Sharp said. “But the door to get in is locked. We came here in person specifically to talk to a CIAC official with the intention of making an alternative proposal instead of canceling the tournament games.
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“We have a proposal that includes playing without fans that we think can work. But it looks like we won’t get to talk to anyone from the CIAC. Like many of the athletes here protesting, this is our senior year at Darien and we don’t want it to end this way with canceled tournament games.”
Lungarini spoke with the media briefly in the CIAC’s parking lot just as the protest started. But during the interview the protesters surrounded the interview area and shouted “Let Us Play.” There was a police presence, and when the crowd swelled up near Lungarini, as a precautionary measure, police escorted him back into the CIAC building.
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) March 11, 2020
Lungarini said he intended to come back out at some point to talk to the protesters. But when some food items were briefly thrown at the building, incidents quickly shut down by the police, Lungarini thought it was better to stay in his office. He later spoke with the media in the CIAC office when protesters began leaving after local television stations finished their live noon broadcasts.
“Canceling the winter tournament games was the hardest decision I ever had to make,” Lungarini said. “We weighed all our options with 170 remaining games to be played (boys and girls basketball, boys hockey). But different school districts were coming up with different restrictions when it came to coronavirus and neutral site venues told us they couldn’t hold our games.
“Everybody involved with this decision certainly understands the emotion, how difficult it was for the athletes to hear that this decision was made. The students have a voice to be heard and we did our best today to accommodate them to express their opinions. I wanted to come out and talk to the students. But unfortunately some items were thrown at the building and that made it impossible to engage in further dialogue.”
"…this is the last the last decision we wanted to make…." pic.twitter.com/LKjhk7FvMy
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) March 11, 2020
Lungarini said the CIAC is financially impacted by the decision.
“Our financial loss is significant but I don’t have that number at this time,” Lungarini said. “Finances were never part of the equation when it came to our decision to cancel tournament games. We’ve had good communication with Mohegan Sun (basketball) and Yale (Ingalls Rink, hockey) when it comes to their facilities.
“When it comes to CIAC tournament entry fees for the schools, the majority of them haven’t even been billed yet for those fees. We’ve been proactive with them and entry fees that have been paid will be refunded.”
Many parents did not want to be interviewed. But Michelle (last name withheld), a Branford hockey supporter, was at the protest to show her support for all the athletes and their effort to to play tournament games.
“I understand it, the issues surrounding the coronavirus,” Michelle said. “But schools are still open and YMCAs aren’t closing. So many of us don’t understand why they (CIAC) feel the need to cancel the tournament games, why are they doing this to the kids?”
Lungarini said he would entertain the idea of meeting with the five Darien hockey players to listen to what they had to say.
“If their principal or athletic director made the request for me to meet with their kids, I would do so,” Lungarini said. “But so many educational organizations like the (Connecticut) Department of Education and Connecticut High School Coaches Association support the decision we made. So to be honest, nothing would change when it comes to our decision.”
Sharp said he and the other four Darien hockey players are considering their next move.
“Nothing definite on this yet, but we will look at the possibility of going to Hartford and organizing a protest at Governor Lamont’s office,” Sharp said. “That could be our our next step.”