It was truly one of the most unusual team celebrations that sports fans will ever see. Because of a worldwide pandemic, however, no fans actually got to see it.
Players and coaches from the Essex High School (EHS) girls’ ice hockey team felt all sorts of ways during the moment -- some being frustrated, some being sad, and others trying to be happy.
Just minutes earlier, they were told that their season had abruptly come to an end. They would not be playing for the 2021 Vermont D1 state title against Burlington/Colchester High School (BCHS) -- to no fault of their own. Instead, they would be crowned champions by default.
Essex had been anxiously waiting underneath the bleachers at Leddy Park’s Gordon Paquette Arena as the 4:30 p.m. scheduled start time came and went. They hadn’t yet seen their opponent in the building as the SeaLakers were gathered outside in the parking lot waiting themselves.
The issue: school administrators and members of the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA), the governing body of high school athletics in the state, were discussing a developing COVID-19 situation that involved BCHS. It was finally determined that the game would not be played.
Already in full gear and ready to skate, the Hornets returned to the ice to shoot a few pucks before gathering for photos and celebrating the fact that they had made it all the way through the regular season and championship tournament without a loss.
“The fact that they want to come back out and skate, not having a game, I think says a lot,” said EHS Athletic Director Pat Merriam. “The kids want to have fun, they want to play a game, and they’re not ready for their hockey season to end -- that's for sure.”
As of Wednesday night, the VPA had not made any announcement as to what the outcome of the game’s cancellation would be -- whether Essex would be crowned the lone champion or EHS and Burlington/Colchester would be co-champions.
But the Hornets tried to make the most of the moment and played it out as if they were celebrating a victory -- just doing so without having the hardware they’ve become accustomed to holding over the last two years in their hands.
“My feeling is: they are the champions,” said Essex head coach John Maddalena. “I don't really care -- it doesn't matter to me -- what the VPA decides. We showed up today; we were ready to play. [My players] had an undefeated season; they had an unbelievable season, especially in spite of COVID, and they should be treated as champions. And I really wanted to reinforce that: let's go out on the ice, let’s get a championship picture, let's take some other pictures. But it's not the same; I feel very bad that they didn't have the opportunity to experience that celebration. That was tough.”
Go to Page 2 for more thoughts from Essex High.
Senior goalie Sophia Forcier
“We're all just kind of in shock a little bit -- disappointed. We're thankful to the VPA for the season we did have and the nine games we've played, but it really does feel good. I mean, I've been to [UVM’s Gutterson Fieldhouse] with this team for three years in-a-row, so to come out to our final game and win through forfeit doesn't feel as good as three hard periods. So I think that's kind of where we're at right now.
“It's one of those COVID stories. It's similar to what the seniors felt last year and what people felt last year: you really have to never take a game for granted. And we did have a hard matchup against Rice, and that was a great game for our team. But it definitely does feel like a shock to know that that was last time we'll be playing together as a squad. I would have never expected it to end this way, but I'm still grateful for four years of the girls and that we made it to the final two four years in-a-row. I'm just grateful for the team and the coaches for that.”
Senior defender Courtney Himes
“I think we're all pretty upset. I did not think my last game was going to be on Saturday. I was really excited to be able to play in the championship my senior year. We've made it here four years, and just to finish it off with a win my senior year would just be awesome. And it's just really upsetting that they had to do this to us.
“I don't think it's really sunk in quite yet, but it probably will pretty soon. I've been playing with my sister my whole hockey career and pretty much the same with Abby Robbins, with Sophia Forcier -- it's been the four of us all through youth, and we've been by each other’s side for every state championship we won, even in eighth grade. So it's kind of just surreal; it still hasn't really hit. I'm really proud of all the girls and how far we've come, and I know that if we got to play, I'd be even prouder.”
Senior goalie Megan Ginnett and her sister, freshman defender Sarah Ginnett
Megan: “Being a senior, it's really upsetting that our championship game had to end like this -- kind of like the ship sinking in a way.”
Sarah: “This was the only year I would be rostered with my sister -- as a freshman and senior -- so it's definitely a disappointment to not get to play the game and be a champion through actually winning.”
Q: Was there a special moment during the season that you had together that you’re going to really remember and cherish?
Megan: “On senior night, she gave me such a huge hug for all of the achievements and whatever. We didn't play too much, but every single moment just -- with the team in general -- is always amazing because it's such a great group of girls.”
Sarah: “It was just great to have my best friend on the team with me.”
EHS Head Coach John Maddalena
“The fact that we came out, we warmed up, and no one had said anything to us -- that there was some possibility that there wouldn't be a game -- I thought was a little unfair. I would have really appreciated when we got off the bus if somebody said, ‘Hey look, the game may be delayed. We can't tell you why, but the game may be delayed.’ And then we wouldn't have put on our skates and come out here. And the refs are telling us, ‘The other team isn't out here; you should probably get your girls off the ice so that they're not spent warming up.’ It’s just unfortunate, and I think there was clearly an opportunity for better communication.
“Like I said before, they didn't even have the opportunity to celebrate after the game and experience what a big deal that is. One, it's tough because you're not in the Gut, and that's where you usually are. Two, there are no fans. But still it would have been special. The buzzer sounds, the game's over, everybody is excited, and you look at the pictures weeks, years later of that celebratory moment. And that's something that was taken away.”