The teams will meet again Tuesday night, meet again on the same patch of West Hartford ice where one of their captains had been left in a pool of blood after a controversial hit.
This time, Hall-Southington and Conard will play in the state tournament with their hockey seasons on the line. For a group of teenagers who love their sport, some perhaps skating with an organized team for the final time, this will mean everything.
This time many more will be watching. Not only for the final score of a CIAC Division II opening-round game, but for how each player, each coach, each fan reacts to a fierce rivalry that turned gruesome when senior Drew Booth fell to the ice on Feb. 24 with two fractured eye sockets, a broken nose and various lacerations.
Those reactions will mean everything, too.
Those reactions at Veterans Memorial Rink will be an inspiring force for every school in the CIAC to embrace. Or they won’t be.
High school sports in Connecticut got two wake-up calls in recent weeks. And if high school sports are — as we so want to believe — a breeding ground for teamwork, in situational problem-solving, in skill development, in determined yet honorable competition, it would be derelict not to intertwine the two in search of answers.
After a foul led to one of his players suffering a broken wrist, East Hampton basketball coach Parker Strong did something “highly unprofessional” and “not acceptable.” Those are not my words. Those are the words of the East Hampton superintendent in a letter to Strong obtained by the Hartford Courant through a Freedom of Information request.
East Hampton’s Colin Baker drove to the basket in a January game, trying to slice between Connor Egan and Noah Sanders of Hale-Ray. With Baker in the air, Egan brought down his right arm down. The off-balanced Baker landed hard on the floor. When you foul an airborne player, the unfortunate law of gravity is that there is no way to dictate how that player may safely land. Was the play vicious? It certainly did not look that way. Did Egan try to hurt Baker? He has said no.
This did not stop Strong from sending the video clip to two Hale-Ray players he coached in AAU and text-messaging them about a dirty hit. From there the ugliness spread. Egan’s parents have talked about their son being taunted at other games and, ultimately, worse.
According to the Courant, a classmate of Egan’s got a threatening text from a Bacon Academy student, a friend of Baker’s, asking about Egan. He texted that Egan “needs to be snuffed.” Snuffed for, at worst, a hard foul? Frightening. According to the Courant, the student was arrested.
Strong was suspended one game. He was fortunate. He could have been fired. Obviously, he didn’t want Egan to be “snuffed.” Yet what he did was reckless. He incited a dangerous situation. By 2018, even old goats like me know about the dangers of a hair-trigger social media.
East Hampton entered the Shoreline Conference championship unbeaten against Cromwell on Saturday night and will be a threat to win the Division V state championship. Baker is back in the lineup. Hale-Ray, whose season is over, decided to forfeit its second league game in February against East Hampton because of safety concerns. Nobody, especially Strong, should feel good about that outcome.
I refuse to attach nefarious and scheming dimensions to what Strong did. To me, rather, his actions were reactive and emotional. Still, when a player or a coach takes affront to a hit, or when a fan gets worked up at a game, nefarious and scheming are not what can do so much harm. Reactive and emotional do.
The outpouring of love and support for Drew Booth has been inspiring. Folks in West Hartford and Southington, the hockey community around the state, a GoFundMe campaign to help with Booth’s college expenses, the hashtag #Prayfor9 — it has been a beautiful thing.
ATTENTION: A scholarship fund has been set up to help Drew in his future endeavors. Please feel free to donate anything you want. Every dollar counts and is much appreciated. Help Drew reach the goal as he recovers from his injury. @CTHSHockey #Prayfor9 https://t.co/3RFcv3sXY8
— Hall-South Hockey (@Southhallpuck) February 28, 2018
Booth underwent six hours of surgery last week and has been improving each day. The recovery will be a long one, said Jason Siegal, athletic director for both West Hartford high schools, but his understanding is there will be no long-term neurological damage. Booth, he said, hopes to be going home in the coming week. A football, lacrosse, All-State hockey player, a tough kid, a good kid, he is going to be OK.
Yet it also would be naive, even dangerous, to ignore hard feelings. When Booth went down, the Hall-Southington Twitter account said he was injured on a “dirty play.” The 1-1 tie with Conard had turned chippy, as most rivalries do, and some of the aggression escalated. The player who hit Booth was assessed a five-minute major. A few days later, Hall-Southington coach Brian Cannon told the Meriden Record-Journal that what happened was “unnecessary. It was so avoidable.”
“Both families have been in communication directly, parents to parents, kids to kids,” said Siegal, designated by the Booth family to speak on their behalf. “The young man has reached out to Drew. I know the Booth family appreciates their gesture.”
The offending player will not be identified here. After East Hampton, there is zero need to contribute to revenge motives. Siegal declined to elaborate what discipline, if any, the player received, but said he is eligible to play Tuesday.
As the AD for Conard and Hall, Siegal finds himself in the unusual position of being on both sides of the story.
“When there is adversity, whether it is on one side of town or the other, I have found that both sides of town rally and are supportive,” he said. “There is the Hall-Conard rivalry, but in this situation where one person has been severely injured, they put the rivalry aside and the entire community pulls for Drew to get better.”
The Conard community & boys hockey team are happy to hear Drew Booth is doing well and has begun his recovery process. Tonight, & for the rest of the season, the Chieftains will wear the #9 to honor Drew. You are in our thoughts & prayers, we wish you the best of luck. #Prayfor9 pic.twitter.com/CoM1mSPWdh
— Conard Athletics (@CHSWHAthletics) March 1, 2018
After Hall-Southington played for the CCC South title Saturday night — in the quirk of CIAC bracketing over the weekend — there suddenly is a return match with Conard.
“As surprising as this game adds to the story, everyone wants to use this as a positive experience,” Siegal said. “To show everyone in West Hartford, in the state and in the hockey community that we want to beat each other but at the end of the day we are one and want what is best for kids.”
Not for a moment do I doubt best intentions. Yet again, sports are reactive and emotional. Words in advance are good, but the message will be delivered by actions.
“Am I anxious leading up to the game?” Siegal said. “Sure, I think everyone in the community will be.”
That’s why on Friday night, Siegal said, West Hartford superintendent Tom Moore led a discussion. The meeting was open to both programs, players, parents, coaches.
“It was a productive conversation, which ultimately led to the kids speaking up,” Siegal said. “On behalf of each of their teams, the captains spoke said they are ready to play good, clean hockey and play in honor of Drew. That’s the best way to help the healing process. We’re going to have a successful night Tuesday.”
Conard, Hall, Southington: This is your chance to inspire. Seize that opportunity.