Todd Hall was — literally — fresh out of pro hockey when he crossed paths for the first time with Jonathan Quick.
Hall had been a star at Hamden High School in the late 1980s and early ’90s, going on to play collegiately at Boston College and New Hampshire, and then for six years in the American Hockey League, mostly with the Hartford Wolf Pack, with whom he won a Calder Cup in 2000.
Less than two years later, he was back in Hamden and starting a stint as a high school volunteer assistant coach under Bill Verneris.
“My first task was to take the two goalies down to the other end and tell which one was better,” said Hall. “I said, ‘What’s the catch, guys?’
“I could shoot the puck back then,” he added. “Every time I’d score a goal (Quick) would push the puck back to me and say, ‘Shoot again.’ He hated getting scored on.”
Quick, the Los Angeles Kings standout who is representing the U.S. this month at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, might be the most visible proof of a proud hockey history in town, but he’s not all of it.
Hockey’s always been part of the fabric in Hamden, which has been fielding high school teams since the 1930s and has claimed 17 state championships since the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference began recognizing champions in 1948.
“It’s the town sport, really,” said Jim Burt, who led the Green Dragons to Division 1 titles in 2009 and ’10 and is now a sophomore at Trinity College. “The majority of kids, that’s the sport they’re playing.”
But it’s been in the last few years that the town has really pushed its hockey products onto the national scene.
Quick played for two years at Hamden High School before going on to star at Avon Old Farms, UMass and then the Kings.
At Avon, he backstopped the team to back-to-back New England prep championships in 2004 and ’05. At UMass, he helped the Minutemen reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in their history.
His pro career started quietly, with the Reading Royals in the ECHL in 2007-08. But he was in the NHL by the end of that year and, the following season, he was entrenched as the Kings’ No. 1 goalie.
Two years ago, his name was inserted into the conversation about the best goalies in the world. He led the Kings to their first Stanley Cup championship, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
“I remember being in Five Guys in (nearby) Woodbridge and seeing a lot of young guys with L.A. hats on,” said Burt. “It just follows the pride you have in your town.”
“It’s cool to see somebody that you had some part of, some part of his growth in hockey and some part of his growth in character, have such deserving success,” added Hall.
And speaking of success …
Quinnipiac, a private university of 6,500 undergraduates located in town, is one of college hockey’s nouveau-riche programs. Under 20th-year coach Rand Pecknold (Bedford, N.H.), the Bobcats have enjoyed six 20-win seasons since joining ECAC Hockey in 2005-06; they’re on the way to another this winter, and were ranked No. 4 in late January.
Last year, the Bobcats crafted the finest season in program history, going 30-8-5 and reaching the national championship, where they suffered a stinging 4-0 loss to neighbor Yale, a team they beat three times during the season, each time by at least three goals.
“I think we were the best team in college hockey for the season, and unfortunately we didn’t prove that tonight,” said Pecknold afterward. “You’ve got to give Yale credit for that.”
The university’s men’s and highly successful women’s teams play their games at the TD Bank Sports Center, which opened in 2007. The center is a 185,000-square-foot facility with basketball and hockey arenas joined by a common lobby area and university club. Both arenas seat about 3,500 fans.
Twenty years before the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid, N.Y., there was Bob McVey (Hamden, Conn.) helping the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team win a gold medal at Squaw Valley, Calif., as the second-line left wing.
Eight years earlier, he was leading Hamden High to the 1952 New England championship, and he’d help Harvard win national championships in 1957 and ’58.
Many of the players who wear the high school sweaters today are second- or even third-generation players. Burt’s grandfather and father both attended Hamden High School. The pride, passion and rivalries were ingrained in him from an early age.
“I’d be out in the street all the time,” said Burt. “I wouldn’t pretend I was against the NHLers. I’d pretend I was scoring a goal against Fairfield Prep.”
Verneris has been part of the program as a player, assistant coach and the head coach since the 1970s. He was part of the 1976 Hamden team that was recognized as the national high school champion.
“I’ve known Billy since I was a sophomore in high school,” said Hall. “Having coached with him for 12 years, I’d tell you he’s probably the craziest guy I’ve ever met as far as his passion for hockey. He’ll sit in at Yale practices, at Quinnipiac practices, looking for anything he can use.”
The Dragons keep it in the family. Another assistant coach, George Jerolman, played with Hall on that ’89 title team. The two JV coaches are graduates as well — Scott Jason (Class of ’91) and Mike Sanca (Class of ’08).
That’s why it was gratifying for Burt and his teammates to end a 20-year title drought in 2009, finishing as the No. 1 seed and beating New Canaan (1-0), Xavier (3-1), Enrico Fermi (4-2) and Glastonbury (4-1) on their way to the Class L title. They followed it up by beating Fairfield Prep (6-5) in the 2010 final, and Burt was named Connecticut Player of the Year as a senior.
“Billy Verneris was the most passionate person, and I think our teams matched that passion,” said Burt. “Him and George and Todd had all won titles. We wanted to get that out of the way.”
All hockey eyes have turned to Sochi, with Quick and Team USA set to begin knockout round play in a few days.
But plenty of good hockey going on back home, too. Always has been.