SPRINGFIELD – As the Cathedral High School boys hockey team prepares its quest to take home the first Super 8 championship in program history, one question clouds everything: Where will home be?
With Bishop Mitchell Rozanski’s Feb. 23 announcement that Cathedral and Holyoke Catholic high schools would merge, there has been perhaps no time of greater uncertainty, other than the moments immediately following the destruction of Cathedral’s East Forest Park home on Surrey Road by an EF-3 tornado on June 1, 2011.
The team’s namesake stands at a crossroads at which only one thing seems to be sure: Nothing will be the same.
For the Panthers, and the Cathedral community, this year’s appearance in the state’s most prestigious hockey tournament as the No. 1 seed presents the veteran group the opportunity to write a very significant page in Cathedral hockey history, perhaps the last one for the program as we know it.
“It’s such a long book and hopefully it continues after us and the success continues after we’re gone,” senior co-captain Peter Crinella told Reminder Publications. “We’re playing for the community; we’re playing for the future and the past. Cathedral, it stands for so much rich history, with the hockey team especially and we’re just trying to continue that tradition … If we win it all, and go undefeated, it’s certainly one of the biggest and most memorable milestones we’ll ever see.”
The bishop’s announcement failed to address whether Catholic education would return to Surrey Road. While the school’s whereabouts – and even its name – remains unknown, the door has been left open for doubt, angst and even anger that has resonated throughout the community.
Some expressed relief that at least Catholic secondary education would remain in some form.
“At least the school stays open and part of Cathedral lives on,” senior co-captain Zac Prattson said. “I feel like that’s a really big deal because [Cathedral] has helped us all so much.”
Still others are adamant in their belief that Cathedral’s legacy should be untouched.
“I was with my noni when [the announcement] happened. She lives right on Wheeler [Avenue in East Forest Park] and she’s 80 years old and she doesn’t fail to tell me she needs Cathedral on Surrey Road,” Crinella said. “That’s the reaction [that I’ve heard]: We need Cathedral to have its name and it needs to be on Surrey Road.”
With all the questions and upheaval, Cathedral hockey remained unwavering, bulldozing its way through an undefeated season, 20-0-2, capped off with a 2-1 win over four-time defending champion Malden Catholic.
“[The situation] has really brought us together, as a community and as a team,” Prattson said.
Senior co-captain D.J. Petruzzelli added, “I don’t want to say we played better to save the school, but we had a goal as a team that we wanted to be the best team in the state and whatever positive effect on the school that has, we’re happy with.”
While acting as a ray of light in a dark time for many, coach Brian Foley said it has also been healthy for the players to have an outlet.
“It’s easy for them to focus on a game that they love and really just worry about the team and not what’s going on with the school,” he said. “[They] focus on what they have control over and that’s what they do academically and every day in practice.
“It’s a tight team, they’re great friends and I think they’ve stuck together and have a really strong bond amongst each other and I think that’s what makes them a really special team,” he added.
The top seed in the tournament puts the Panthers in a unique situation historically. It’s a position never attained by a Cathedral team.
Last year, as a No. 3 seed, Cathedral made it to the Super 8 semifinals for the first time in school history. This year, with the majority of the group carrying the memories of that tournament, the Panthers believe experience makes them very dangerous.
“A lot of young guys got a lot of experience last year and the year prior too,” Petruzelli said. “Bigger venue, more people, some kids can get nervous from that and that experience helps.”
Prattson added, “It helps you gain confidence to play your style and play your game.”
Beyond experience, Foley said the team is more physically ready.
“We lost to two very experienced Malden Catholic teams the last two years. They had it on age, size, strength and experience over us those two years,” he said. “I think this is the first year where we’re really one of the more experienced teams, one of the older teams, one of the stronger, bigger teams.”
The team is champing at the bit to hit the ice, Foley added. When they do on March 1 against Woburn at 2 p.m. at Tsongas Arena in Lowell, their focus will be on one thing – not just skating at the TD Garden for the championship on March 15, but winning it.
“Honestly, for our group this year, we’re so talented and gifted, it would be a shame if we didn’t take the whole thing,” Petruzzelli said. “That’s our goal and anything less than that this year would feel pretty empty.”
While hockey itself may not save the Cathedral, the players believe it can help with something that has been in short supply in the days since the bishop’s announcement – hope.
“This year, with the uncertainty of the school and having the best season we’ve had in years, if we win it, hopefully we’ll bring a smile to people’s faces,” Crinella said.