Years from now, the 2001-02 edition of the Salem Witches may be best remembered as the team that saved high school hockey in the Witch City. But today, they're better known as the group that finally ended more than a half-century of frozen futility. After 57 years, the Witches made the Massachusetts state tournament, and even knocked off perennial powerhouse Wilmington in the first round in an overtime nail-biter. In short, they're now winners.
"Kids were used to losing," says rock-solid junior goaltender Danny Lassiter. "That was the thing at Salem. People felt, 'You play your four years in high school, and that's it – you just hung up your skates for life.' The seniors last year finally realized that they didn't have to put up with that."
Lassiter has first-hand experience. He was thrust into the starting role as a freshman, and together with his teammates, suffered through a 1-17 campaign in 2000-01. The year before Lassiter's arrival was no better, with the Witches posting a 1-19 record. It marked another low point for a once-proud program that had produced a number of tremendous student athletes, including one of the country's leading businessmen, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who captained the team in the late 1940s. By the late 1990s, however, the team was decimated by defections to local prep schools, such as St. John's Prep in Danvers, Bishop Fenwick in Peabody, and Malden Catholic. At one point, the team was only dressing a dozen players, and on the brink of extinction.
"We're just fortunate that the school budget was better then," says Coach Kristian Hanson, who took the reins of the program in 2000. "If it was down to 12 kids now, the way money is in the city, they certainly would have cut the program."
Hanson was well aware of the challenges facing Salem hockey. He was one of the native sons who left the city to play for St. John's Prep (he still holds the school's goal-scoring record, lighting the lamp 102 times during his four-year career). After graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1998, Hanson took an assistant coaching position with Salem under head coach Scott Hentosh. When Hentosh left for Amesbury following the 1999-2000 season, Hanson assumed to top spot. By then, the Witches had already been forced to cobble together a Division 2 independent schedule, since similar-sized schools with far superior hockey teams were routinely mauling them in the Northeastern Conference.
"By going independent, we were able to play some of the younger kids every game," says Hanson. "And because we're not playing against (dominant programs like) Saugus and Winthrop every night, we were actually able to be in some of the games, and the kids could build some confidence."
It's an important distinction, because the whispers throughout Boston's North Shore claimed that Salem was winning last year against inferior opponents. Hanson, however, is quick to point out that the opponents didn't changed – the Witches did.
"Last year, we finished 12-8-2 after the tournament. People forget that two years ago, this team was 1-17, and the year before that they were 1-19, playing against the same teams that they're able to beat today," he says. "We couldn't compete with anybody. We've certainly come a long way."
What sparked the turnaround? Players and coaches point to a new attitude, embraced by four seniors from last year's squad, dedicating themselves to training year-round, both on and off the ice. The team kept playing in spring, summer and fall leagues, and started spending time in the weight room, getting stronger. "We became more of a team, and we all wanted it more than the year before," says current junior Derek Hollis. "We all tried a little harder, and all came together."
Hanson singles out last year's senior tri-captains Ross Childs, Justin Wilkins and Mark Guy for the lion's share of the credit. They encouraged other players to get in better shape by running and weight training, and then led the way by example. Lassiter said the team started to see the effort pay off when they made the playoffs in a Cape Ann summer league. But the real test came after Thanksgiving, and the start of the high school season.
"After working so hard in the off-season, going into last year, I was really hoping we would win something," says Hanson. "I was thinking, if we did all this work, and then went out and finished 1-19 again, the kids were just going to say 'Forget it, it doesn't matter what we do. We're not going to win.' But coming out last year, we got off to a 5-0 start, the kids really started to believe that we could win."
The Witches, playing only two forward lines and three defensemen in front of Lassiter, put on a display of offensive fireworks. "We were playing the same teams that had been giving it to us," says Lassiter. "We were scoring 7, 8 goals against teams that were scoring 7 or 8 goals against us the year before. We weren't getting a lot of respect from other teams on the North Shore, and even kids in our own school. People said we were playing weak teams. But we had always played those supposedly weak teams before, and they took it to us."
Winning also brought renewed interest in the city, and fans to the games. People in Salem were talking about more than the school's superb basketball program. Hockey was again on the map, especially when the team collected enough points to make the tournament.
"It's something we'll never forget," says Lassiter. "It's also something for anyone who's ever Salem High hockey, anyone who's ever skated on that ice and had people tell you that you were a loser and your program was going nowhere. This last season was for everyone."
"It's a huge legacy for them," says Hanson. "Until you clinch that last game to make the playoffs, nothing's guaranteed, so we tried not to talk about it. But I told them, to be positive, that 'When you do it, you're going to remember this for the rest of your lives. When you look back over the course of your life, you remember significant events. When you look back on your hockey career, this is what you're going to remember, to be the first team in 57 years to qualify for the state tournament. That's something that nobody else in the history of the program here can say. And you guys are going to be able to say it.'
"They put a banner in the high school field house. When you go to the field house, it's loaded with basketball banners (recognizing the school's great teams and NBA talents such as Rick Brunson and Scoonie Penn), but there were zero hockey banners. Now there's one. And every time these kids go back there, or their kids go, that banner will still be up there."
The Witches, however, weren't done. Hanson, drawing on his four years of tournament experience with St. John's, knew his undermanned team would need to pick it up a notch. Seeded 12th, Salem High was matched against top-ranked Wilmington in the tournament's first round. Again, the Witches were lightly regarded and apparently outgunned. After being out shot 29-1 in the first period, the Witches regrouped, dug in, and willed themselves to a 3-2 overtime win.
"When we won that game, a lot of kids were surprised, because they were told by people that they were not only going to lose, but get killed," says Hanson. "So winning that game was that much more special. Wilmington had a tremendous team last year. It was just a great win, for the kids and for the program."
The 2002-03 edition of the Witches is doing just fine as well, posting a solid 8-3-1 mark at press time, with only three points (a win and another tie in their remaining eight games) needed to qualify for their second consecutive tournament berth. Hanson, like many North Shore coaches, still needs to worry about losing players to elite private programs. But he now suits up nine freshmen, and seven of those see regular ice time.
"It was easier this year, because the kids knew what they did last year, and they wanted to repeat," says Hanson. "I just tried to get them motivated by telling them that, in order to win and in order to make the tournament, this is what you have to do. I just tried to relay my own personal playing experience, what I used to do as a player. And that was play hockey year-round. You have to play year-round if you want to be the best."
For the players, the mind-numbing disappointment that once defined the program seems a distant memory.
"In the past, you looked at Salem High hockey and it was this rag-tag team of kids who might play pond hockey and just showed up," says Lassiter. "This year, we have the kids who skate all year round, and have played for most of their lives. The freshmen have been outstanding."
Which simply means that anyone looking past Salem this year, or in years to come, does so at their own peril.