A Program In Transition
I had the opportunity this past week to speak with three of the newest coaches in the Connecticut High School Hockey world, coaches Mike Bonelli from NFI, Nick Costanzo from Xavier and Jake King from SGWL. Here are some of the highlights of our conversations. This was not an easy process, however, since all three bench bosses were just great guys to talk high school hockey with. They each brought their own views of their teams and the high school game in general. Enjoy!
Head Coach Mike Bonelli comes back to NFI by way of Iona Prep and the USA Hockey program. I could have talked to all of these coaches for hours but this was especially true with him. His vision for the future of NFI Hockey with their upcoming separation to become Immaculate Hockey as a stand-alone program in 2019-2020 was one of great care and compassion. He views his team as passionate, committed and together which goes hand and hand with the type of players he has and will need to make this transition successful.
When I asked Coach Bonelli about players to watch he mentioned seniors Sam Mitchell, Ryan Fanella and Scott Dobos as excellent hockey players and established leaders of his group. Coach Bonelli intends to be a puck pursuit/puck possession team, limiting at all costs the temptation to give pucks away. Emphasis will be placed on playing as a five man unit at all times and in all zones.
Their biggest tests on their schedule will be at the Prout Tournament December 26-28 as well as a strong end of the regular season schedule. These matchups will serve as a sort of state tournament type run to end the season in lieu of CIAC qualifying. The transition is something that is not taken lightly by Coach Bonelli who most importantly wants to develop these players both outgoing and those staying with the program to the best of his very capable staff's abilities. Players staying with the program will develop their skills and use this season to prepare for next year in every way possible, while outgoing seniors will have assistance in possibly continuing their careers at the Junior, ACHA Club or NCAA level if they wish to do so.
We closed out our conversation on the state of high school hockey in Connecticut. Coach Bonelli pulled no punches here in his response echoing feelings so many high school coaches I speak with while bringing some new thoughts to the table as well. His experience working with USA Hockey and his experience within the hockey world in general had me captivated while he gave me his thoughts about the high school game we all love. We discussed how the game has evolved and our constant fight to keep kids vs. year round hockey and junior hockey. His belief is that we need to make high school hockey the best developmental option available in order to make high school hockey the number one choice for these players. He also feels strongly that community hockey programs are the way to go to be able to connect youth programs all the way up to the high school level to achieve the type of long term success and growth that is needed in the high school game. We both agreed we would like to see the season return to an earlier start date and that the CIAC may benefit by listening to one of its greatest resources, the coaches.
Overall the knowledge and passion that this guy brings to the table is amazing. It’s obvious that NFI, soon to be Immaculate, is in great hands with Coach Bonelli at the helm. I’m excited to see the results from this current team and what I am sure will be a successful transition ahead.
Wise Beyond His Years
Coach King went on to describe being excited to finally be calling the shots on his own this season as it is his first varsity head coaching opportunity. The players he will be relying on include Conner Mathews a big senior forward who tallied 19 points last season. King described him as one of his horses. Ryan Antkowiak one of the top rated offensive defensemen in the state will look to get even more involved in the offense this season as big things are expected from his coach. King wants players like Antkowiak and others to focus on making better decisions with the puck regarding time and space. He also intends to be more of a puck possession team than they have been in the past. Emphasis will be placed on playing as a five man unit as well utilizing all options available.
Some opponents Coach King looks forward to playing include Fairfield Co-op in SGWL's second game of the season as he feels this will be an early indicator of where they stand heading into the beginning of the year. He takes aim at Conard and Simsbury as other teams that will test SGWL's abilities later in the season. His expectations for this season are somewhere between rebuilding and possibly being a contender. King believes in order for SGWL to make waves, he must develop some starting depth in goal and work towards depth on the bench as well to be able to compete on a nightly basis. I agree that there are some nice pieces in place but the potential question marks in goal and depth are going to be obstacles.
Coach King closed out our conversation when asked about influences and role models stating he hoped to be a cross between two of his mentors, Eric Roos from the Southern CT Stars and former SGWL Head Coach Nick Boorman. He mentioned not only their knowledge of the X’s and O’s but also praised their temperament and professionalism. Hopefully this young coach can harness some of their wisdom and experience because I think he will be just fine leading this newest version of Wildcats to continued respectability in the DII ranks.
To Be The Best, You Must Beat The Best
Coming over from North Haven with his coaching staff Coach Nick Costanzo will look to keep the tradition of winning at Xavier alive. He did his share of that in North Haven and now takes over a squad formerly led by coach Dan Deconti that has definite talent. Senior forwards Chase Maxwell, Evan Pace, Trevor Early and sophomore defenseman Luke Lappe along with an outstanding supporting cast will try to get the Falcons to Yale this season.
Coach Costanzo stated the toughest part of taking over was getting out and meeting up with his players personally prior to the start of the season. I was impressed as he spoke about the importance of this. He made every effort to touch base with all of his guys prior to day one to get on the same page in a transition that appears to be going extremely smooth as an outsider looking in.
My most anticipated question for Coach Costanzo was the schedule he has laid out for the Falcons this year. In my opinion, I have not seen one as tough as this in a long time for any team maybe outside of Prep. When I asked him about it he agreed but he definitely put it into perspective by saying that his team would be challenged every game and that he felt the rigor of a schedule like this will have his team prepared come state tournament time. I know it will certainly be fun to watch as a fan. The schedule includes Pope Francis (MA), Bishop Fenwick (MA), Catholic Memorial (MA), Malden Catholic (MA), Mount St. Charles (RI), Ridgefield, Fairfield Prep and Hamden in state to name a few of the high octane teams they will face.
Coach and I then moved on to discuss the state of high school hockey in Connecticut. High praise was given for the atmosphere at Yale and the fun leading up to it. As with the other coaches we spoke to, there were concerns over the co-op situations and starting the season so late. These topics were in the forefront of our discussion. I could feel the passion Coach Costanzo has for the sport in our interview. His suggestion of getting the coaches more involved regarding these concerns and the ways we could solve these problems stood out to me. I whole heartedly agreed that the CIAC should go to the coaches to get their take on it all instead of relying solely on the co-op and CIAC Ice Hockey Committee.
Three new coaches and three new stories will be written this season. No matter the records of these teams, they are all in great hands with these coaches in charge. The love of the sport and the passion for the players who play it was obvious when speaking to this group. Get your popcorn ready. Now we get to see it all play out right before our eyes. I love this game!
You can follow Jesse on Twitter @cthshockeyjesse!