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Photo courtesy of Cushing Academy
Former NEPSAC Stars Still Shining Bright

Thanks to a trio of Pittsburgh Penguins who were born and bred in New England and honed their talents in the rinks of the area’s prep schools, thousands of hockey fans throughout the region received their just reward this summer: a chance to get up close and personal with the Stanley Cup.

For Nick Bonino (Avon Old Farms School), Conor Sheary (Cushing Academy) and Ben Lovejoy (Deerfield Academy), this was a time to return to their roots and show off the spoils of a National Hockey League championship. It was an opportunity to thank those who had helped them along the way as well as inspire the younger generations of skaters in the audiences to dream big, because – as the Cup will attest – dreams do come true.

The Stanley Cup wasn’t the only symbol of hockey supremacy that took a victory lap throughout the New England area this summer, however. The Lady Isobel Cup made its inaugural appearance this spring after the Boston Pride captured the initial Women’s National Hockey League title and with 11 former New England prep school standouts dotting the Pride’s roster, you knew it would be making plenty of stops throughout the region.    

“I thought bringing the Stanley Cup here was a fantastic gesture,” said Avon hockey coach John Gardner of Bonino returning to the Avon, Conn., campus with the NHL’s Holy Grail in tow on Aug. 11, where an estimated 5,000 fans got to view the league’s symbol of superiority.

“I’m not a bit surprised that he decided to spend a part of his day with the Cup here with us, though,” said the dean of New England prep school hockey coaches, who has chalked up eight New England Division I championships and owns a 708-247-41 record through 41 years of coaching. “Nick’s always been someone who’s given back to the community,” added Gardner of the native of nearby Farmington, Conn.  “He’s always been very appreciative of those around him and has never forgotten where he’s come from.”

Chances are, no one from the Avon area has forgotten Bonino, either. He is a rare triple-crown winner in hockey, having been a part of a New England prep school championship (2007), a National Championship during his career at Boston University (2009) and now a Stanley Cup title with the Penguins.

Despite playing at Avon for just two seasons, Bonino has proven to be one of Avon’s most prolific scorers ever, scoring 122 points on 50 goals and 72 assists. His freshman and sophomore seasons were spent at Farmington High School, where he notched 112 goals and 46 assists for 158 points.

One day prior (Aug. 10), at Sheary’s request, the Cup made a pit stop in Ashburnham, Mass., where more than 1,000 onlookers made their way into the Cushing’s Iorio Arena to view it, as well as the Lady Isobel Cup.

Cushing proved to be a perfect place for the WNHL’s title trophy to be put on public display, as the Pride’s general manager, Hayley Moore, is a 2004 Cushing grad as well as a former standout in the Penguins girls hockey program.

“It was certainly a big day for Cushing Academy’s boys and girls hockey programs,” said Moore, who led the Penguins in scoring during her sophomore, junior and senior seasons and earned All-New England laurels for her exploits. “Both Conor (Sheary) and Lauren (Slebodnick) graduated the same year (2010) from Cushing and to have them involved in winning the Stanley Cup and Lady Isobel Cup, respectively, what’s the odds of something like that happening? Pretty slim, I would guess, so we wanted to make the most of the situation.

“We reached out to Conor about exhibiting the two trophies together and he was very supportive of the idea,” added Moore.  “Conor’s sister, Courtney, plays hockey, so he’s been exposed to women’s hockey and was all in on the idea of helping promote the game.

“From there,” continued Moore, “it was just a matter of Cushing coordinating the event and the school deserves a lot of credit … it did an outstanding job both promoting and hosting the event.” 

In addition to Moore and Slebodnick, nine other former players representing New England Prep School Athletic Council schools skated for the Pride last season. They were Marissa Gedman, Kelly Cooke and Denna Laing of Nobles, Casey Pickett of St. Mark’s, Cherie Hendrickson of Brooks, Emily Field of Lawrence Academy, Hillary Knight of Choate, Jillian Dempsey of Rivers and Kacey Bellamy of Berkshire.

“Attending Cushing Academy had a huge impact on my life. It supplied me with a great foundation for college … both athletically and academically,” said Moore, who went on to earn a B.A. degree in biology at Brown University, as well as finishing 17th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 105 points off 56 goals and 49 assists.

“For me, Cushing helped fuel the fire,” added Moore. “It surrounded you with a lot of like-minded people who were just as passionate and driven as you were to be successful. The coaches and teachers there pushed me out of my comfort zone and up to a level they knew I was capable of playing at.”

“I think Conor’s decision to bring the Stanley Cup back to the Cushing campus is a real testament to what we do as a boarding school,” said Cushing boys hockey coach Rob Gagnon. “We gave Conor a chance to play the game and develop as a hockey player. He was given the opportunity here to play key minutes in key situations and to gain confidence in his ability to play the game.”

The native of Melrose, Mass., would take full advantage of the opportunities the storied Cushing hockey program offered him, but those benefits didn’t show up immediately. This future Hockey East (at UMass/Amherst) and NHL standout spent his freshman season on the JV team, while his varsity debut as a sophomore saw him log just four points. Then things began to click, as he netted 114 points the next two seasons – 43 on 16 goals and 27 assists, as a junior, then 71, on 30 goals and 41 assists, during his senior year. 

Lovejoy, a native of Concord, N.H., who now spends his off-seasons in northern New Hampshire, opted to show off the Cup at Dartmouth College’s Thompson Arena, where the standout defensemen earned All-ECAC honors while playing for the Big Green.

Thousands took part in the celebration, as Lovejoy, the first New Hampshire native to ever have his name engraved on the Cup, reportedly remained on site until the very end. According to a tweet on his website,  “Ben stayed until the last person in line posed for a picture, a security officer at 9:50, and for that we thank him immensely.”

One of those celebrants was Brendan Creagh, who helped tutor Lovejoy at Deerfield and it didn’t take the veteran mentor long to realize this youngster was really someone to behold.

“By the time we were heading out for our annual Christmas tournament during Ben’s freshman year, you just knew that if this kid remained healthy, he was bound for greatness,” said Creagh. “Right from Day 1, you could see he had the talent to be a top-4 defenseman in the Division I collegiate ranks. And what’s more, he had to work ethic to make it as well. He was an extremely hard worker and constantly pushed himself to become a better hockey player.

“There are a lot of professional hockey players out there,” added Creagh. “There are a lot of them in the AHL and a lot of them in the NHL and in many cases the difference between someone playing in the AHL rather than the NHL is that they took advantage of an opportunity. Ben did exactly that. The Penguins called him up   during the 2009-2010 season and he’s been in the NHL ever since … and now he’s got his name on the Stanley Cup. That’s awesome.”

As it turned out, Lovejoy (2001) proved to be a perfect fit for Deerfield hockey – and Deerfield hockey proved to be a perfect fit for Lovejoy. During his playing days, Deerfield was an annual fixture among the premier programs throughout New England as well as a member of the Founders League, which, at that time, also included Avon, Choate, Hotchkiss, Loomis, Taft, Trinity-Pawling and Westminster. That lineup made the league, unquestionably, one of the most competitive in New England, if not the entire country.

“I also had two great coaches in Jim Lindsay and Brendan Creagh,” said Lovejoy, “and amazingly talented teammates who challenged me every day in practice. I couldn’t have found a better situation to prepare me for college hockey and beyond.”

For Lovejoy, who was drafted by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Moncton Wildcats in 2001, junior hockey was an option – but was never a choice.  Lovejoy realized at an early age that he was probably going to be able to use his athletic ability to help get him into schools, such as Dartmouth, but he had to combine the athletic piece with a quality academic experience.

In addition, Lovejoy was not ready to give up soccer or lacrosse, sports he earned all-New England and All-American honors in, respectively, and All-Ivy League honors in lacrosse at Dartmouth, and that made the prep school route even more attractive.

Plus, “coach Lindsay always encouraged his hockey players to be multi-sport athletes,” said Lovejoy, who owns a BA degree in history from Dartmouth, so junior hockey, nor any other prep school, for that matter, was never in the running.

“I think it all depends on the individual,” said Creagh of the prep school vs. junior hockey debate. “I feel as though the prep school route has an enormous athletic upside because I firmly believe that playing three sports makes for better, more well-rounded athletes and raises the overall athletic skills of the player.

“Plus, playing three sports prevents the burnout that athletes who play only one sport, often encounter.”

Bonino didn’t lose his knack for putting pucks in opposing team’s nets once he moved on from Avon. At Boston University, he chalked up 117 points over a three-year career, on 45 goals and 72 assists, while he has registered 57 goals and 93 assists for 150 points through five seasons in the NHL, as well as 34 points on 12 goals 22 assist during playoff games.
“He’s always been a difference maker,” said Gardner of Bonino, who, as a sophomore at BU, scored with just 17.4 seconds remaining in regulation to send the 2009 NCAA National Championship game into overtime, where the Terriers eventually won the crown.

That knack of scoring big goals has stuck with Bonino on the NHL level as well, as he netted a pair of game-winning goals during last season’s playoffs. His first ousted the Washington Capitals, 4-3, from the second round of the playoffs when he tallied in overtime. His second trimmed the Sharks, 3-2, in Game 1 of the finals.

“I must say that I’m not surprised at how successful Nick has become,” added Gardner, “but I am surprised at what an outstanding defensive player he has turned into. I think Nick would be the first to admit that he never blocked a lot of shots when he was here at Avon,” quipped his former mentor.

“Even coaching at the New England prep school level, I’d say it’s almost impossible to look at a player and say he’s going to make it to the NHL,” said Gagnon. As far as Conor is concerned, I knew he had game-changing ability, had Division I talent and would likely play professional hockey … but playing professional hockey doesn’t necessarily mean playing in the NHL.

“The key to his success has been that he’s worked and worked and worked and continued to elevate his game,” said Gagnon of Sheary, who moved on to attain the century mark while playing at UMass/Amherst, scoring 104 points on 38 goals and 66 assists.

A big reason why Sheary has had to maintain a hefty work ethic throughout his hockey career is his lack of size. At 5-8 and 175 pounds, he is the smallest player on the Penguins roster and has likely held that distinction on most of the hockey rosters he has made. There’s been no lack of scoring ability on Sheary’s behalf on the NHL level, as he netted 10 points on seven goals and three assists during 44 regular-season games. He then hit double figures in 23 playoff games with 10 points off four goals and six assists. One of those tallies included the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.

The day Jillian Dempsey spent with the WNHL’s Lady Isobel Cup turned out to be a rather normal one. That’s because she brought the trophy to her day job, which is a fifth-grade teacher in her hometown of Winthrop, Mass.

“I thought the kids would get a kick out of it,” said Dempsey, who was a rare five-year varsity player at the Rivers School in Weston, Mass.  “I felt it could serve as motivation … to show them that they can accomplish any goal they set out to achieve. All they have to do is put their minds to it and then go out and work hard to achieve it.”

That would appear to be exactly the way Dempsey has gone about her hockey career, as she not only made the Rivers varsity as an eighth-grader, she led the team in scoring as a rookie and finished atop the scoring charts the next four years as well. For her achievements, she was named to the Independent School League All-Star Team for four years and earned the ISL’s All-Scholastic MVP Award her senior year.

“I had to write an autobiography when I was in sixth grade,” said Dempsey, “and I wrote about how I played hockey at Harvard University. Playing at Harvard had always been a dream of mine and I feel so fortunate that I got the chance to live that dream.”

She got to live that dream big time, too. Dempsey became one of the most decorated players to ever lace up a pair of skates for the Crimson. She produced 148 points on 76 goals and 72 assists to lead the team in scoring and being named its MVP following her sophomore, junior and senior seasons and finished her career ranked ninth on the school’s all-time scoring charts. She earned first-team All-ECAC and All-Ivy laurels as a junior and senior, and second-team honors as a freshman and sophomore.

“Rivers and I had a chance to grow together,” said Dempsey of a prep school showing that provided a huge steppingstone to outstanding collegiate and professional careers. “My first year at Rivers also marked the same year that the school introduced varsity girls hockey. It was a building process for the program as well as for me, but we grew together and made it through.”

As a 13-year-old eighth-grader, Dempsey found herself playing both with and against players, who, as postgraduates, could have been as much as five years older than she was. “So, you needed to elevate your game if you wanted to play,” said Dempsey, who was the 10th overall pick of the Boston Blades in the 2013 Canadian Women’s Hockey League draft. She later proved to be a wise choice for the Blades as her 28 points in 24 games would lead all American-born skaters in the league’s scoring charts and earned her the CWHL’s Rookie of the Year honors.

“I feel very fortunate,” said Dempsey, “I’ve been blessed both academically and athletically, and looking back, the five years I spent at Rivers has played a huge part in my successes in life. I had tremendous teachers who challenged me daily in the classroom and as far as athletics is concerned, New England prep schools offer one of the most competitive leagues you’ll find anywhere at the high school hockey level.”