By Paul Silverfarb
It’s been a long and windy road for head coach Ron VanBelle and his coaching staff. Since he moved the Brunswick School ice hockey program up to competing against some of the most competitive and prestigious teams in the Northeast, as well as the country, there are times where, instead of some smooth sailing, it’s felt like a rollercoaster.
There have been some pretty big speed bumps along that highway for the Bruins.
However, Sunday made all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile. After stunning the top-seed Northfield Mount Herman in the New England Prep School Athletic Conference Large School hockey tournament semifinals, the Bruins kept the good times rolling and won the school’s first-ever postseason championship, beating Thayer Academy 4-3 in overtime.
“It was pandemonium,” VanBelle said. “The bench went from being on our heels to jumping up and down in disbelieve because it’s over and we won. The senior leadership is what got us there and the senior leadership is what brought it home on Sunday. I am so happy for those guys and what a way for them to go out by ending their Brunswick careers with a championship. Three of the four goals in the championship game were from seniors.”
After giving up a two-goal lead to send the game to overtime, it appeared as Thayer was poised to take home the championship. However, just like Brunswick have been playing throughout the season, it’s difficult to count them out.
With under 12 minutes to play in the overtime period, and as the Tigers were attacking the Bruins’ defense throughout most of the overtime, senior Ryan Carmichael gained possession of the puck and darted his way towards the Thayer defense. After eluding several defenders, Carmichael unloaded a wrister that hit the pads of the Thayer goalie.
With the goalie unable to corral the rebound, fellow senior Jack Forrest got a stick on the puck and fired it in the back of the net for the game-winning championship goal.
“The boys really earned this,” said VanBelle, who has coached the team for the past 13 seasons. “We were a little bit on our heels. They were getting the better of the play. We were up 3-1 and gave up two goals to send it to overtime. The ice was definitely tilted in their favor and the momentum was against us. But the message was that any chance you get, you shoot at the net. If the puck is on net in overtime, you never know.”
Early in the game, it was Brunswick that was applying the pressure and came away with the quick 2-1 advantage. Senior Christian LeSueur and junior Tom Richter came on strong through the Thayer defense and buried their shots past the goalie.
Senior Nick Boardman kept the good times rolling for the Bruins in the second period, as his lone goal of the period helped extend the Brunswick lead to 3-1. Although Thayer came away with two third period goals, it was the Bruins that ended the game in overtime with a goal and championship.
Brunswick’s amazing playoff run started last week, as the No. 5 seeded Bruins hit the road to play a game against No. 4 seeded Williston. Despite playing in Easthampton, Mass., it was Brunswick that was lights out, coming away with the 2-0 victory.
Carmichael got the ball rolling in the second period with a shot from the blue line that beat the Williston defense. Junior Charles Shaffer extended the lead to 2-0 with an empty-net goal late in the third period. However, it was the goaltending of Dan Dachille that won the game, as he stood on his head to keep the Wildcats off the scoreboard.
With the victory, it means Brunswick needed to play top-seeded Northfield-Mount Hermon. However, that wasn’t a problem for the Bruins. Led once again by Dachille, Brunswick stunned top-seeded NMH 5-0 in the NEPSAC Large School semis.
In addition to Dachille not giving up a goal for six consecutive periods, Henry Hill, Eddy Glassmeyer, Richter, Shaffer and LeSueur each tallied a goal in the victory.
With the victory in the championship game, Brunswick ended its magical season with a record of 18-12-4 overall.
“As the playoffs started, we got the No. 5 seed and pretty much guaranteed not to get a home game in the playoffs, I mentioned to the coaches and the team that this is the bed that we made and that we have to win three games on the road,” VanBelle said. “But I reminded them that I thought we were a very dangerous No. 5 seed and that no one expects us to play at the level we are going to play at. We followed through with that and it was great.”
For the combination of VanBelle and assistant coach Michael Kennedy, this championship was around a decade in the making. VanBelle took over the program 13 years ago and Kennedy has been there with the head coach every step of the way.
“It’s a very different program than it was 13 years ago,” VanBelle said. “The landscape of prep school hockey has changed considerably, and I think we have done a pretty good job keeping pace with the landscape and making Brunswick hockey relevant. You can see it in the fact that we are starting to build a good college resume now of our players going on to play at the next level. And we are playing with a huge compete level. You’re talking about boys from Fairfield and Westchester counties that are playing, competing and winning in one of the best high school leagues in the country.”
Kennedy noted that raising a banner for the school’s hockey program certainly bring with it a great sense of pride. Not only is the championship huge for the coaches and athletes on this year’s squad, but Kennedy said it’s just as meaningful for the teams in the past.
“We’ve come so far since Ron and I arrived 13 years ago (and Steve Mandes nine years ago) — from a Division II schedule to taking our lumps early in our Division I days, to starting to compete and then defeat many historically strong schools,” said Kennedy. “It’s a culmination of so many years of hard work and dedication by both the coaches and players and would not have been possible without so many who wore the ‘Wick uniform in the past. They are all deserving of a piece of this championship. They believed in Brunswick hockey and took it a step farther with each and every year.”
For VanBelle, it’s almost too difficult to put into words the amount of excitement the team, and especially the coaching staff, was feeling after the game ended and the celebration was on.
“Mike and I have done this for 13 years and Steve (Mandes) has been with us for nine years,” VanBelle said. “We have been involved with this program and the building of this program for a long time. It all kind of came together. There were a whole bunch of emotions running through us during and after that postgame celebration.”
One thing was certain for the Bruins. When they made the jump, along with a slew of other programs, from Division II to Division I, Brunswick didn’t continue to just play their old foes. The played anybody that they could get on their schedule. It didn’t matter if VanBelle and Kennedy knew the game would be a blowout against a vastly superior squad. They believed in the old cliché that you only get better by playing the best.
“There were some ugly and lopsided games for sure at the start, but we stuck with it and knew the results would improve,” said Kennedy. “We still have that same ‘play anybody’ mentality and keep adding some of the best programs in New England. To play Kimball Union, Rivers, and Salisbury this year got us ready for this playoff run.
“And to beat some of the best — that Salisbury win last season was one of the best wins in school history — is very fulfilling,” added Kennedy. “We’ve certainly earned their respect by now and this title really puts the stamp on it. Brunswick hockey is here to stay.”
Before the hockey program was at the level it’s at today, if an athlete was serious about playing hockey at the collegiate level, Brunswick School wasn’t on the athlete’s radar. The Bruins were losing top quality local players to places like Kent School, Avon Old Farms, Salisbury School, Taft School and Choate Rosemary Hall.
“We are seeing less and less of that,” VanBelle said. “Our admission request and applications are really strong and a lot of that, coming from the hockey point of view, is because we are sending kids to play collegiate hockey and that we have had a lot of success. This championship is just another example of the success this program has had.”
The championship that Brunswick picked up really helped turn around the consensus on how the season played out. Before the Bruins’ four-game winning streak to end the season, the longest streak of the year for the team, they were only 14-12-4 overall.
While Brunswick didn’t win more than three in a row prior to its tourney run and lose more than two in a row, they were still in nearly every game they played. They tied perennial powers Rivers School and lost to them again 2-1 in overtime of the Nichols-Belmont Hill Tournament. They took another powerhouse, Salisbury School, to overtime before falling 3-2.
“It was a little bit of a frustrating season because we were in very single game and playing at such a high level,” VanBelle said. “We took two of the highest-ranking teams in New England to overtime and couldn’t get the win. Sometimes we played down to a lesser opponent. The attitude was there, the skill was there, the effort was there, and the energy was there. I never had to punish this team for a lack of effort. They were very coachable, they followed the game plan and they worked their butts off. If I can go through an entire season without having to remind the team that they need to give me more effort, that makes my job so much easier.
“To say that it was a disappointing season as we were going through it is true because it was just frustrating,” added VanBelle. “We always had that feeling that we were better than our record. In past years, I felt like our record was surprisingly good considering our depth and age. I think that this year we were a couple of big wins away from qualifying for the Elite Eight or at least being a top seed in the large school.”
And one of Brunswick’s keys to success towards the end of the season was its ability to, regardless of the situation, find the back of the net. And it wasn’t just on the shoulders of one person, as LeSueur, Forrest, Shaffer, Richter and Boardman were getting the job done in front of the net.
“We weren’t a prolific goal-scoring team this season,” VanBelle said. “We got really good at creating chances and getting those blue collar goals. We got pucks to the net, rebounds, deflections and really focused on trying to create opportunities. In the playoffs, most of our goals were rebounds and deflections after we got pucks to the net. In the championship game, we had two goals that were great goals. But the third goal and overtime winner were banging home rebounds. Against Northfield-Mount Hermon, I think all the goals were deflections or rebounds. We put the puck on the net and banged home rebounds.”
With the offense firing on all cylinders late, the duo on defense of Carmichael and Patrick Burkinshaw, as well as Cooper Moore, were lights out throughout the season.
“They were a rock for us all year long,” VanBelle said. “Ryan found some offense for us late and created a lot of offensive punch.”
And this championship will do nothing but help the next 13 years look a little brighter.
“It’s going to help us build,” VanBelle said. “We made the playoffs four years in a row. I think that there are maybe 11 schools that have made the postseason four years in a row and that’s in all of prep school hockey. We are one of those 11 of 58 that made the playoffs four years in a row and that’s special. I think all of this is going to help us attract even more athletes to the school.”