- Scott Barboza, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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CANTON, Mass. – The playoffs must seem a birthright to all Westwood hockey players through the years.
The Wolverines, yet again, have qualified for the MIAA tournament this season. That means any player who has slipped a spoked “W” sweater over their head during the last 30 years has played a postseason game. Westwood’s 30-year playoff streak is the longest such streak in Massachusetts hockey. During that span, the Wolverines have racked up 19 Tri-Valley League championships and four state championships (1985, ’91, ’92 and 2002).
Even though the postseason has come as sure as the turning of the calendar, it hasn’t all been easy for the Wolverines.
This year’s model graduated 17 players from the team of one year ago, including ESPN Boston All-State “Best of the Rest” selection goaltender Chris Treon.
“There were some question marks coming into this season, definitely,” Westwood head coach Mike Welby said Monday, after the Wolverines’ 2-2 tie with Holliston at the Canton Metropolis.
But the streak alone has become a motivating factor for its inheritors.
“The streak can be a big cloud over our heads sometimes,” Wolverines senior captain and defenseman Shane Maher said. “My brother played and every game he texts me asking me how we did. Our focus this year was just getting there, getting the points we needed to qualify.
“Now, that weight’s off our shoulders, so we can concentrate on going on to the playoffs.”
Like any other high school hockey program, Westwood has no means of grabbing players from beyond its realm. It’s part of what makes the Wolverines’ accomplishment that much more astounding. Oftentimes, the town’s brightest hockey stars end up at private or prep schools, or they go the junior route.
What has fueled the Wolverines, year after year, is a sense of pride shared by its players: Pride in team, pride in living up to lofty expectations, pride in those that have come before them.
“It’s a big tradition to live up to,” said senior captain Brendan Dalton, who leads the Wolverines with 22 goals and 29 points in 17 games. “This year, with 30 years on the line, it was a big motivating factor.”
In many instances, Westwood’s players can trace their connection to the program through their families, as their coach does.
Mike Welby was the third of four brothers to don Westwood sweaters.
The Wolverines tradition runs though the current locker room as well.
Several of Westwood’s players, Jim Conway Jr., Chris Ruggiero Jr. and Jack Swartz, are sons of former Wolverines.
“The ones with fathers I don’t know, my brothers probably played with them,” Welby said.
It makes for a tight-knit community, one that centers around the rink. It also means there’s a net of support when times get tough.
Last week, Chris Ruggiero Jr.’s father died suddenly. He was 40. One of the most decorated players in Westwood history, Chris Sr. was an all-star with the Wolverines before going on to play at UMass-Boston.
He was buried in Westwood on Monday.
Tuesday marked Chris Jr.’s return to the ice. Following the game, he walked from Westwood’s locker room into the Metropolis lobby. He walked through the double doors with hockey bag weighing heavily on his shoulder. Chris Jr. was met by a welcome party of family and friends. Gathered in a semicircle, they were clapping for him, most of them Wolverine veterans.