The Game Winners
Game winning goals. They vary. Their level of difficulty, their immediate importance in the game, their ability to surprise, their ability to destroy. The one constant is the indelible mark they leave on the record books forever and the individual that found a pocket, a window, a gap and buried one unforgettable shot.
A game-winning goal in hockey can be a weird thing. At times, in routs, they go forgotten. We often have to scour box scores to see just who had the advantageous tally. But something different happens when you step onto the ethereal ice of Ingalls Rink, these goals gain immediate and utter legendary status.
This is a story of those goals. A reflection told by those who can lay claim to that highest honor. These are the Game Winners.
“Leading up to that game was like no other. I can vividly remember being outside the rink doing our team warmup and stretching before the game and you can hear both fans already chanting back and forth towards each other,” recalls 2010 game-winner, Nick Amarone of Hamden. Amarone back-handed a puck over Fairfield Prep goalie Spencer Sodokoff’s shoulder in the final minutes, leading Hamden to a crazy 6-5 win over rival Prep, their second in as many years.
For some, the lead up to the game was pretty ordinary. “When we got to Yale I did my typical warm up by myself with music and then juggled a soccer ball with the rest of the team, “ Fairfield Prep 2014 game-winner Vinny D’Amore recalls.
2018 Fairfield Prep game-winner Evan Uva echoed those sentiments which makes you believe that that’s something Head Coach Matt Sather preaches, keeping this wild experience rather ordinary. “Leading up to the game was normal, focused and ready for the challenge we all knew it would be. I did what I always did, had fun. That’s probably the most important part of playing, I was relaxed and really excited to play,” Uva recalled.
Others turned playing with house money into, "there’s no way we’re going to lose."
“We had just come off a huge win against Staples where it was fairly safe to say we were not expected to win. The whole team was still excited from that win and I think we were all thinking we had to take it all the way now. After a win like that, we were definitely not gonna lose at this point,” said 2018 Eastern CT Eagles game-winner Kevin Close.
Some kept it loose. 2017 Ridgefield game-winner Jeff Pracella maybe even gave us too much information. “Before the game the atmosphere at the barn was unreal. All the boys were buzzin' per usual. I distinctly remember getting a snap selfie from van Wees on the toilet saying “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. I didn’t really get it at the time but nonetheless I was inspired.”
Once the game gets going, things shift. Focus becomes pinpoint, skills are on full display but it’s hard not to stare into the abyss that is Ingalls student sections.
“During the game I remember it was unbelievable to see how many people were there to support us at the rink,” recalled 2017 Woodstock Academy game-winner Nathan Deluca.
Some remembrances are clear as day. “The feeling during the game was strange. We were never behind on the scoreboard but we never got ahead more than one goal,” Amarone recalled. Deluca echoed that sentiment. “During the game I remember it feeling way too close for what it should have been.”
As far as when that defining goal crossed the goal line and the red light went on, well, some remember it, some don’t and situations vary. These guys potted it in the direst of situations.
“I remember the entire play," D'Amore recalls. "I got the pass from Ryan Deering after he pick-pocketed a Darien player on their break out. Right after I took my shot I could see the net move and then hear the crowd scream. My entire team swarmed me as we made our way towards the Bomb Squad to celebrate.”
“It’s all a big blur to me honestly because it happened so fast. It happened on the first shift into overtime after we blew a two-goal lead. The first thing I thought about immediately after scoring was celebrating with my teammates and all the fans,” 2016 Fairfield Co-op overtime game winner Jake Fuss told us.
It was also a blur for Amarone. “To be honest I don't actually remember the puck going into the net. One thing I do remember is the noise at Ingalls as soon as it did go in. I can remember my teammates celebrating with me after I scored and looking up at the clock with two minutes left in the game thinking we might actually pull it off.”
For others, it was business as usual. We often remember the game-winning goals in overtime or late in regulation. But game winning goals can be scored at any time.
Ridgefield’s Pracella recalls his game winner, “It was early in the first and the last of three goals the boys notched in 24 seconds where I also copped a saucy apple, not a big deal. Yeah, the gino felt pretty good but at the same time the vending machine tuna I had earlier started working its magic in my small intestine so the feeling was blunted.” Ingalls can do that to ya.
Kevin Close also didn’t realize his goal would be the eventual game winner. “At the time of the goal we were up and I had no clue that it would be the game winner and while it felt great to score in the championship, it was more of a feeling of, ‘Good! Let’s keep scoring and not let them in this game.”
When the game ends, this is when it seems that memories crystalize.
D’Amore tell us, “After the game was a blast. The entire team was obviously ecstatic after winning the state championship. We got onto a party bus to Mohegan Sun to watch Prep Basketball in their State Championship game. The best compliment I got after the game came from Will Massie, the Darien goalie who told me, 'That was a great shot.' After he played the way he did, getting a compliment from him meant a lot.”
“After the game was a surreal moment. We had gone from an easy win for most teams to state champions and it was a moment of pure elation. The bus ride home was definitely a memorable ride,” Close recalled.
For Uva, it all came full circle. “After the game it felt like a dream. This was something I wanted since I remember seeing the banner at Wonderland. I couldn’t believe it, something I will never forget.”
Amarone reflected on doing it with the guys he spent the year bonding, growing and learning with. “The feeling after the game was something special, though. You spend an entire season with the same group of guys basically every day with the same goal in mind to win states and when you finally get there, it’s special. Definitely one of the best experiences I've had in my time playing hockey.”
Fairfield Prep’s Vinny D’Amore scored the 2014 game-winner. D’Amore is currently a senior at Quinnipiac University and remembers his time at Prep fondly. “High school hockey is the best hockey. It adds a lot to the game when you are with your teammates every day of the week. The connection built with teammates during school, practice, team meals, and games really was a brotherhood that allowed our team to be successful.”
Jake Fuss, Fairfield Co-op’s 2016 game-winner is currently playing in the NAHL and deciding on his college route. “It was a great experience and made a lot of friendships that will last a lifetime and a lot of great stories to be told forever.”
Nathan Deluca, Woodstock’s 2017 game-winner, is currently at the Wentworth Institute of Technology studying Mechanical Engineering and playing hockey. “High school hockey will always be something I will remember. The thing that makes it so memorable is that there were so many people who cared about it even outside the team. Obviously the guys on the team were all playing to win for ourselves and for each other but it really felt like we were playing for an entire fanbase that was there supporting us every game we played. The whole experience was definitely the most fun I had in high school and I wouldn’t change a single thing about it.”
Eastern CT Eagles’ 2018 game-winner Kevin Close, currently at the University of Connecticut, points out the specific nature of playing for and winning a state title with a co-op. “As a co-op, playing for your school is a little different. We played more for the player sitting next to you vs. a single school.”
Fairfield Prep 2018 game-winner Evan Uva is currently playing for the CT Nighthawks of the USPHL. “Playing high school hockey at Prep was an amazing experience I wouldn’t have wanted to do it anywhere else. I could never really thank my coaches and teammates enough for making it what it was. Each one of them helped me grow as a player and to the person I am today, there are friendships there that will last a lifetime, they are my brothers.”
2017 Ridgefield game-winner Jeff Pracella is currently the leading goal scorer for his men’s league team the Brewzers. He often still wears his full Ridgefield uniform, sometimes while not even playing hockey. “I just like to wear it,” he tell us. Jeff also saves lives as an EMT and doesn’t skip a beat when given the opportunity to tell someone he “won states in high school.”
Men’s league is also the hockey venue for Hamden 2010 game-winner Nick Amarone. Amarone focuses on what it meant to win it for his town. “I always felt that Hamden was a different kind of town in Connecticut when it came to high school hockey. You grow up watching the older the kids playing and walking around with their varsity jackets on and you wanted to be like them. I was lucky enough to win a state championship with my brother playing goalie along side me. Hamden has always been a hockey town and hopefully always will be. Being able to have won a title in this town is something I'm proud to have done.”
So, as we await Monday and Tuesday's Division II and Division I championship games, realize there will be two more names added to this list, enshrined in Ingalls glory with a really cool story to tell for the rest of their life.