Team: Canton Boys Hockey
2019 Davenport Division Champions
2019 Division 2 State Champions
There has been a lot of talented teams in the Hockomock League over the past decade, and narrowing it down to a select few was a tedious and challenging task. With nearly 40 state championship teams, dozens of state finalists, and numerous sectional champions, there was no shortage of talent to select from.
When it came to selecting the top team for the list, there was one squad that stood out above the rest: the 2018-2019 Canton boys hockey team.
Like all of the teams at the top of the list, Canton was loaded with talent on the roster from the first player through the last, and the Bulldogs also checked every box when it came to championships, winning at the league, sectional and state level.
But what really separated this group from the rest was the manner in which they dominated the competition from day one up until the Division 2 State Championship at the TD Garden. Outscoring opponents 133-23, the Bulldogs picked up marquee wins throughout the regular season; they were great from the first game (7-2 over Plymouth South) all the way to their crowning achievement against Tewksbury (6-2).
Some of the great teams on this list have had slow starts while others came up just short late in the tournament or in the state championship. And of course, there were some teams that had a hiccup here or there in the middle of the season against top competition.
This Canton team rolled from the opening puck drop down in Bourne, a season-opening win over Plymouth South to avenge a heartbreaking loss that abruptly ended their season a year prior. In fact, you could circle that game — the 2018 D2 South Semifinal 5-3 loss to Plymouth South — as one of the biggest motivators for the 2018-2019 squad.
“I’m going to use a word that HockomockSports came up with for this team and that’s relentless,” said Canton head coach Brian Shuman. “I think that was the perfect word that sums up this team, they just did not stop. I think we scored the more goals in the opening couple of minutes of a game than I’ve ever been apart of as a coach.
“From the opening puck drop to the very end, just not stopping. Coming shift after shift, three or four lines, and six or seven defensemen playing consistently. Just non-stop and you don’t have to be a hockey aficionado to know that this team was a relentless group of driven and talented hockey players who were on a mission. Not even from day one, it was from the end of the season before from that heartbreaking loss to Plymouth South.”
And when the postseason rolled around, the Bulldogs were at their very best. Against the best competition in the area, Canton made it look easy by outscoring teams 29 goals in just five games, scoring six or more goals in four of those contests.
“We were just so close with each other,” said Ryan Nolte, a senior captain and forward that registered an impressive 71 points (32 goals, 39 assists) that season. “Most of us played together our whole lives growing up. We all had the common goal of playing for the varsity team, we were all together for one last ride my senior year so we wanted to make the most of it.
“We were just so competitive in practice, no one wanted to lose. I think that translated onto the ice in games. And off the ice, I think it was probably the closest group out of all four years I was there. We were always together, even after film and after practice, we’d hang out together. I think being such a close-knit group played a huge role in our season.”
Canton notched two impressive wins before the new year, knocking off a good Franklin team (that went on to the D1 South Finals that season) and dominating Westwood, 4-0. The Wolverines entered unbeaten and didn’t lose a game the rest of the regular season, eventually meeting with the Bulldogs in the South final.
When league play began in January, Canton continued to have its way with opponents. The Bulldogs won their first six league games by outscoring foes 36-5. A good non-league win over Newburyport preceded a two-game span that ended up being a big defining point in the season.
A Wednesday night trip to Franklin nearly derailed the perfect season as Zac Falvey and Scott Elliott each scored to put the Panthers up 2-0 through two periods. But in true fashion of a great team, the Bulldogs battled back. Nolte set up Jack Connolly less than a minute into the first period and Tommy Ghostlaw tied it 2-2 less than two minutes later. Despite playing with a 101-degree temperature, junior Johnny Hagan (21 goals, 31 assists) scored the game-winner with under two minutes to play.
“I’d say the moment when we kind of realized we were really good was that second Franklin game,” Nolte said. “Johnny Hagan was playing with the flu, we were down 2-0 and probably played two of our worst periods of the year, and we went out, in Franklin, and scored three in the third to come back and win 3-2. In the locker room after that game, it was like ‘Okay, we have a real shot at this.’”
Just days later, Canton was put to the test against a hungry North Attleboro squad. After letting a 2-0 lead slip away, Nolte notched his 100th career point by setting up Owen Lehane for the game-winner with just over two minutes to go.
“The two games back-to-back that really showed the grit and mettle was the game at Franklin which we were down 2-0 at their place and came back with three goals in the third period to win 3-2,” Shuman said. “And then to gut out a tough win against a really good North Attleboro team, who had us on the ropes, and we scored a late goal to get the win. That showed they had the mental toughness to do something special.”
Canton completed its unbeaten league schedule with a win over Taunton and then really beefed up its resume by knocking off top non-league foes: Bishop Feehan (6-0), Smithfield (8-1), Shrewsbury (5-0), Hanover (4-3), and Natick (3-0), garnering them attention for the Super 8 (Division 1A) Tournament.
“This team was unique and one way was because some of our best players had a confidence — not a cockiness — but a confidence that when they played well, we would win,” Shuman said. “Ryan Nolte, Johnny Hagan, Mike Staffiere…those guys in particular, the guys we were leaning on to score big goals and make big saves. They were definitely the most confident group I’ve coached. That mentality was contagious and infectious throughout our team. When they have that attitude, it really filters throughout the team.
The lone “blemish” of the season came in the opening round of the Quinn Tournament. Hagan scored a late equalizer for the Bulldogs against Boston Latin, with the game going down as a 2-2 in the MIAA record books. Since it was a tournament, it went into overtime and Hagan added another goal to give Canton the win. In the tournament finale, the Bulldogs put an exclamation mark on their resume with a 6-1 beating of Coyle & Cassidy.
The Super 8 committee met two days later and there Bulldogs got four votes in the first round of nominations to advance to the second stage, but didn’t get nominated again and were not selected despite boasting a 20-0-1 record.
“Honestly, I thought we had a shot at it,” Shuman said of the Super 8. “To go undefeated is incredibly difficult. If you’re involved in sports, you know how hard it is, day in and day out, game in and game out, get everybody’s best and respond like we did, it was pretty remarkable. We didn’t talk about (the Super 8), but I think it was on everyone’s mind, including myself.
“I felt the MIAA and the coaches association had opportunities to shake it up over the years and get teams into the Super 8 tournament that never had the chance before. Teams have those windows where they have a great group and they can hang with the best teams in the state. Like Wilmington had a good run, and Franklin had a good run in Division 2 that those teams should get a chance. I thought we made a great case…if they didn’t give it to us, they’ll never give it to a Division 2 team as far as I’m concerned. I think it would have been fun, it would have been special but everything works out for a reason.”
Longtime Franklin coach Chris Spillane, who guided the first Hockomock team to the Super 8 tournament in 2015, saw the Bulldogs a handful of times throughout the season and suffered a pair of setbacks to Canton as mentioned above.
“It’s heartbreaking that Canton didn’t get a look [in 2019] and didn’t get a sniff this year,” Spillane said. “The process is flawed tremendously because people get so caught up on Div. 1 and Div. 2 and there’s no doubt in my mind watching Canton play last year and this year there was no doubt in my mind that not only would they have held their own they probably would’ve had success.”
If the Bulldogs were disappointed by the snub, they certainly didn’t let it translate to their play on the ice. When the Division 2 South tournament started the following week, it was all business for Canton. And for the rest of the bracket, it was trouble.
“You always want to be playing your best hockey going into the playoffs and that’s what this team was doing,” Shuman said. “You look at that Boston Latin overtime win, it was like a playoff game so it showed we were ready for the postseason. As bummed out as a lot of kids were that we tied the game, it showed me we were ready for the playoffs that we went on to win in overtime.
“When you get to the playoffs, everyone is good. We looked at our side of the bracket, you could not have structured a more difficult road to the Garden from D2 South.”
It was like a revenge tour for the previous decade during the playoffs. After drubbing Norwood (6-0) to start the tournament, the Bulldogs welcomed league rival Oliver Ames to the Ice House. Despite holding a 5-2 win over the Tigers from earlier in the season, OA was a team with a successful track record against Canton in the tournament. Back in 2011, the Tigers stunned Canton in overtime, and two years later OA posted a 2-0 shutout in the semifinals.
True to form, the Tigers gave Canton their stiffest test of the tournament. Going stride for stride, up and down the ice, trading hits, it was one of the most competitive games of the year. A one-minute span in the second period changed the game as Nolte tipped in a shot from Connolly, and just 52 seconds later, Chris Lavoie redirected a shot from Matt Martin. Staffiere (17 saves) stood tall in net as the Tigers continued to pressure but Hagan recorded his 100th career point with an empty net goal to secure the win.
Up next was a trip to Gallo Arena, which had recently turned into a house of horrors for the Bulldogs in the month of March. Dating back to 2013, Canton reached at least the semifinals each season, which meant a trip down over the bridge to Gallo. And unfortunately, it also meant heartbreak. A 2-0 loss to OA in 2013, a 3-2 loss to Medfield in 2014, a 4-1 setback to Westwood in 2015, being upset 4-2 by Scituate in 2016, and back-to-back heartbreakers: a 3-2 loss to Medway in 2017 and the 5-3 defeat to Plymouth South a year prior.
“The word was that we couldn’t win at Bourne,” Nolte said. “We wanted to keep the haters in the rearview and prove them wrong.”
Not only did Canton go on to win at Bourne, they decimated the competition. Going against one of the best goalies in the region in Norwood senior Austin Reardon, the Bulldogs put together a terrific performance, scoring six goals against one of the stingiest defenses around.
To top that performance, Canton went on to light the lamp eight times in the South sectional final. Westwood, which hadn’t lost a game since its setback to the Bulldogs in December, entered with a 16-1-6 record but it took Canton less than a minute to score and the rout was on from there.
“You talk about being relentless? We scored early in that game and that set the tone for the entire game,” Shuman said. “We just didn’t stop at that point, we continued to put the pressure on. There aren’t many times you can look back and see an 8-0 win in the sectional final. It’s tough to beat a team twice and tough to beat a team with that much talent but it was truly a team effort. Our depth really carried us that game, that was the most complete game of the season.”
While nothing is given, and the Canton boys hockey program had certainly seen its share up ups and downs during the postseason over the past decade, it certainly felt like the state championship was just a formality; that’s how good this team was playing at the time.
If there was any doubt or nerves while playing under the bright lights at the TD Garden against Tewksbury for the D2 State Championship, it certainly didn’t show. In typical fashion, Canton needed just five minutes to find the back of the net. Lehane blasted a shot from the point and Timmy Kelleher buried the rebound. Just 90 seconds later, Ronan O’Mahony set up Connolly for a blast for a 2-0. And just 16 seconds later, Nolte joined in on the scoring party and suddenly Canton had a 3-0 lead just 7:49 into the game.
Tewksbury battled back in the second, cutting the deficit to 4-2, but Staffiere came up with some big saves to preserve the lead and Hagan added two more goals to complete the hat trick, earning a 6-2 win and the state championship.
“You dream of getting off to a good start like we did but it’s a 45-minute hockey game and you don’t win a game in 15 minutes,” Shuman said. “We knew Tewksbury didn’t play their best, they played much better in the second and scored a couple of goals but credit to our guys, we responded and fought back like we had all year long. We came out swinging early on, took a few blows in the second but then closed it out in the third.”
|Plymouth South||W, 7-2|
|Plymouth North||W, 5-0|
|Franklin||W, 3-1 (Recap)|
|Mansfield||W, 4-0 (Recap)|
|King Philip||W, 2-1|
|Oliver Ames||W, 5-2 (Recap)|
|Franklin||W, 3-2 (Recap)|
|North Attleboro||W, 3-2 (Recap)|
|Bishop Feehan||W, 6-0|
|Boston Latin||T, 2-2 (W, 3-2 in OT)|
|Coyle & Cassidy||W, 6-1 (Recap)|
|Oliver Ames||W, 3-0 (Recap)|
|Norwood||W, 6-1 (Recap)|
|Westwood||W, 8-0 (Recap)|
|Tewksbury||W, 6-2 (Recap)|