Editor’s note: On Wednesday, February 22, the Needham High School athletic department and hockey coach Bill Guisti granted access to reporter Scott Barboza and videographer James Walsh to follow the team for their first-round game of the Springfield Cathedral tournament. This is the result.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN NEEDHAM AND SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Needham High hockey seniors, forward Jeff Rosata and goaltender Connor Murray lean against a parked car. They’re about to board a bus bound for the Springfield Olympia Center for their first-round game in the Springfield Cathedral Tournament, where they’ll play the host Panthers.
“I think we’re faster than they are,” Rosata says, estimating the tape he’s seen on that night’s opponent.
On paper, leading into the matchup, the teams figure to be even. The implications of the game are likely to dictate seedings for the upcoming Super 8 hockey tournament. They know the importance of the game.
“I mean, we’ve made the Super 8, what? The last three of four straight years?” Murray says, with a San Jose Sharks snapback cap tilted slightly upward on his head. “We know we need to keep that going.”
Rockets assistant coach Tom Shaughnessy emerges from the open doorway of the bus.
“Time to get going.”
Rockets forward Jeff Parsons has a reputation on the team, something that of a human GPS. He sits sidesaddle on an aisle seat in front of teammate Jamie Arnao.
Watching the exits zoom by, somewhere around the Auburn service exit on the Mass Turnpike, Arnao blurts out, “How far away are we?”
The question, seemingly posed to nobody in particular, was directed at Parsons. He sits back in the seat and gazes upward with his eyes, as if consulting a map of Central Mass. painted on the bus ceiling.
“Should be about 50 minutes or so,” Parsons rifles back.
Freshman James Fisher brought along a copy of “Dodgeball” for viewing. The P.A. speakers of the bus muzzle the dialogue with a humming. With every bump in the pavement, the T.V. screen flickers with a line of static fuzz rising from bottom to top. Three pairs of seats are occupied in the front of the coach, one with drinks (Gatorade, water), another with an assortment of plastic-wrapped deli sandwiches, the last with trays of potato chips, Fritos, Doritos.
It’s like a team sleepover on wheels.
Arnao, a senior forward who also helped the football to a Division 1 Super Bowl appearance in the fall and is a standout on the baseball team, is the team jokester. He’s dressed in a pair of aquamarine chino pants, a button-down shirt with a windowpane print and an overcoat.
I ask him whether the not-so-subtly-colored pants are a game-day tradition.
“Yeah, this is usually how I roll,” Arnao replied, laughing, as usual.
Seated at the front of the bus, Needham head coach Bill Guisti sifts through papers. Guisti, who owns his own business, used the down time on the trip to go over a couple of pregame adjustments he wants to make with the Rockets’ lines. He wants to move blue-liner Timmy Parlato up front. He’s hoping Parlato’s Brad Marchand-like style of play might unnerve Cathedral’s defenders.
He scribbles down notes on a sheet of loose paper, remarks he wants to reinforce before the team takes the ice. The former Mount St. Charles (R.I.) hockey standout spends most of his free time scheming the Rockets to their next win. He takes a couple minutes to check in with his two daughters though.
“I usually don’t have this much time to myself,” he says.
There’s an arcade room in the lobby of the Olympia Center. Arnao saunters past it on his way back from a bathroom break. Headphones on, he’s ready to get into his pregame warm-up.
A toddler shouts over to him, “I just put a dollar in, can you play with me?”
Arnao looks around for a moment, then stepping toward the two-person shooter video game installation, he says, “Sure.”
“I’m on a 40-man kill streak,” the child tells him.
Arnao takes a couple of shots with the plastic gun, he misses his target. The child, less than half Arnao’s height, is blowing up everything in sight.
“I gotta’ go, I have to get ready,” Arnao says.
Walking away, Arnao adds, “That kid is ridiculous.”
After a moment of reflection, he wonders aloud, “Where’s that kid’s mother at?”
In Guisti’s pregame message to the team, he cautions the team about the fact that the officiating crew might not give them the benefit of close calls as the visiting team.
By the end of the first period of a 0-0 game, it looks like Guisti is right.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to be smart,” he says. “For you seniors, you know what this is all about. This is it.”
After two periods, the Rockets struggle to generate many scoring chances in a tight-checked game. It’s a playoff atmosphere with both teams vying for the sixth spot on in the upcoming Super 8 tournament.
Murray is playing one of his strongest games of the season; he’s bailed out the team time after time. He’s slumped back in his seat at the second intermission. Somehow, the Sharks snapback is still on his head in the same position it was all those miles before.
There’s no fire-and-brimstone speech from Guisti, just a gentle pleading for the team to take care of the little things. In such a tight game, anything could make the difference.
The team comes together for one final ooh-rah and wait at the door for the signal to move out onto the ice for the third period.
Amidst a chorus “Let’s go boys,” senior captain D.J. Walsh still hasn’t moved from his perch on the bench. Beads of sweat gather on the strands of hair emerging from the brim of his helmet. He’s breathing deeply.
It echoes Guisti’s message to the team before the game.
“When you guys get back in here between periods, you should be gasping for air that’s how hard you’ve skated out there.”
Walsh’s plastic facemask is fogged up. He draws a couple deep breaths, stands and follows his team out.
The Rockets lost 1-0.