Former NEPSAC Skaters Measure Success by the Cup - The Stanley Cup
By BOB YORK
Recipes for success have long thrived in the athletic arena, but in such a highly competitive domain – where the margin between winning and losing is often razor-thin – achievement often relies on more than just a recipe’s ingredients. The quantity of those ingredients must also be carefully measured to ensure the quality of the outcome. Take the National Hockey League for example, for more than a century now it has been measuring supremacy by the cup – the Stanley Cup.
This icon of excellence is annually presented to the NHL champion and – thanks to a couple of homegrown New England prep school standouts – it made a return engagement to New England this past summer. Each member of the cup-clinching Pittsburgh Penguins had the opportunity to spend a day with the Cup and many players took the opportunity and displayed it in hometowns and hockey rinks as a way of saying “thank you!” to family, friends and coaches who helped make a dream come true.
Due to the Penguins’ successful defense of their NHL pennant last spring, former New England Prep School Athletic Council school standouts Nick Bonino (Avon Old Farms) and Conor Sheary (Cushing Academy) got to host the Stanley Cup again.
At most alma maters, having an alum return to campus with the spoils of victory would be considered pretty awesome. At Avon, however, where former Winged Beavers have closed out four of the past six seasons by capturing the Cup, its appearance is rapidly becoming a part of the school-year calendar. In addition to Bonino (07) having won the Cup the past two years, goaltender Jonathan Quick (05) is also a two-time winner of the NHL’s Holy Grail, reaching the league’s summit with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014. Hall-of-Fame defenseman Brian Leetch (1986), meanwhile, won it with the Rangers in 1994. In addition, Quick and Leetch are two of just four Americans who have won the Conn Smyth Trophy. The trophy, which is presented to the player deemed the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs, was awarded to Quick in 2012 and to Leetch in 1994.
“It never gets old,” said veteran Avon hockey coach John Gardner of watching his former players go on to achieve success on the professional level. “You see lots of guys who have the talent to make it to the NHL and many of them are fortunate enough to play lengthy careers … but when those careers finally come to an end, it’s surprising how few of them ever have had the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. That’s why you have to feel good for someone like Nick, he ‘s always had a tremendous work ethic and has always made the most of his opportunities.
Bonino certainly made the most of his opportunity at Avon, and his level of play there earned him induction into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame last spring. In just two seasons with the Winged Beavers, Bonino proved to be one of the school’s most prolific scorers ever, chalking up 122 points on 50 goals and 72 assists in just 51 games and was captain of the 2004 team that captured the Division I New England prep school championship. His freshman and sophomore seasons were spent at nearby Farmington (Conn.) High School, where he logged 112 goals and 45 assists for 157 points and helped lead the school to the 2005 state title.
While Bonino was already well known for his offensive exploits when he debuted as a junior at Avon, Sheary’s scoring touch took a little more time to develop. In fact, the future Hockey East standout at UMass/Amherst spent his freshman year on Cushing’s JV team. He made the move up to the varsity his sophomore season, but logged just four points. His scoring prowess began to click his junior season, however, as he chalked up 114 points over the next two years on 46 goals and 68 assists.
“Every time Conor steps on the ice, he works his butt off to elevate his game,” said Rob Gagnon, Sheary’s former coach at Cushing. “He did it at Cushing … he did it on the collegiate level and he’s doing it in the NHL I’m not only proud of what he’s accomplished in the game of hockey but I’m even prouder of the way he’s accomplished it.”
During his four years with the Minutemen, Sheary, who was elected team captain his senior year, produced 104 points on 38 goals and 66 assists. He collected 28 of those points his senior season, which was good enough to lead the team in scoring. In two years with the Penguins, Sheary has posted 63 points on 30 goals and 33 assists during regular-season play and another 17 during two successful Cup runs on six goals and 11 assists.
Gagnon, who resigned his coaching duties at Cushing last spring following an 11-year stint at the school to pursue other hockey interests, owns the unique experience of having coached both Bonino and Sheary on the amateur level – and on the same team.
“It was the summer that Nick was entering his freshman year at BU and Conor was a junior at Cushing,” remembers Gagnon. “I was coaching the Northern Connecticut Wings, a junior team out of the Hartford area.
“Conor played the entire season, while Nick joined us to compete in the Chowder Cup, which is an annual tournament junior teams compete in throughout the Boston area,” added Gagnon. “Unfortunately, that was the only time of the season we could have college-age players on the roster. They never played on the same line, but they were on the same team for five games and it was great.
“In fact,” continued Gagnon, “after Nick was traded to the Penguins from the Canucks back in 2015, I emailed him and told him ‘don’t forget to keep an eye out for Conor.’ Conor had just signed a free agent contract with the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre and I figured they’d be seeing plenty of each other at training camp that fall.”
Knowing people in high places does have its rewards and Gagnon received his with the opportunity to get up close and personal with this spring’s final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I attended Game Two in Pittsburgh and Game Six in Nashville, which was the game in which the Penguins won the Cup … it was really exciting to be a part of the celebration,” said Gagnon.
Bonino has reached the summit of collegiate hockey as well. In 2009 he helped lead Boston University to a thrilling 4-3 come-from-behind sudden-death victory to knock off Miami University and capture the NCAA championship. With the Terriers trailing by a 3-1 deficit, Bonino assisted on a goal with just 17 seconds remaining in regulation, then scored the game-tying goal with only three seconds showing.
his three-year career at BU, Bonino finished with 45 goals and 72 assists for 117 points, while an eight-year professional career has been equally productive. During stints with Anaheim, Vancouver and Pittsburgh, Bonino has collected 187 points on 75 goals and 112 assists. With his free agent signing with the Nashville Predators during the summer, he drew a close on a two-year stay in Pittsburgh. During that time, be passed the century mark in scoring, posting 106 regular-season points on 27 goals and 39 assists, plus 16 goals and 24 assists for 40 more points during the playoffs.
Although Avon has always enjoyed great success in hockey during Gardner’s 42-year tenure, during which time he has posted a record of 748-255-48 and nine New England titles, the school’s Hall of Fame isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with hockey players. Bonino, in fact, is just the seventh hockey player to be enshrined, joining the likes of Leetch, Quick and former Montreal Canadiens’ standout Chris Higgins (01).
Five Winged Beaver hockey teams, however, have been elected into the hall, with three of those squads having a direct correlation with either of Quick or Leetch. The New England championship teams of 2004 and 2005 were enshrined after producing back-to-back New England titles with Quick tending goal. Overall, he helped backbone a 52-3 record during that stretch, including nine shutouts his senior season.
Leetch, meanwhile, is due much of the credit for the 1986 team being a member of the hall. That team recorded one of the best regular-season records in New England history, going 22-0-1 and Leetch, a defenseman, led the charge by being named New England Player of the Year following a 92-point performance on 44 goals and 48 assists. He finished his two-year stint at Avon with 169 points.
There would be no championship pennant to put an exclamation point on such an outstanding season, however. Avon would fall in the finals that winter to Thayer Academy by a score of 6-4. A big reason for that loss could be attributed to the fact that Thayer had a couple of players on that team whose names might just ring a bell: Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte.
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