With three minutes left in the hockey game at Flushing Meadows Park’s World Ice Arena, many of the 200-or-so parents and siblings in the stands are getting antsy. Their gazes alternate frantically between ice and game clock; their necks twist left and right in a fashion usually reserved for tennis fans. They shout “Shoot!” when the puck hits a Holy Cross stick in the offensive zone, sounding like frustrated MSG denizens during a fruitless Rangers power play. As St. Francis Prep controls the puck freely, they shake their heads at the precious seconds wasted with every pass.
With one minute left, they all stand up. Could the streak — the one that started with ‘C’ division blowouts and survived a promotion one level higher, the one that league commissioner Mike Mitchell would look at with pride for the program he founded — really be over?
Two years ago, it seemed unlikely that there would be any streak at all. The Knights, after ten seasons of varying success between the ‘A’ and ‘C’ divisions of the Catholic High School Hockey League, were relegated from ‘B’ to ‘C’ following a poor showing in the 2006-07 season. The drop hit the players hard, and the dozen-point blowouts that helped build a 16-0 record were less a source of pride than a reminder that the Knights could do better. Holy Cross won the division title and found itself back in the ‘B’ class this year.
Beneath those easy victories was untested potential. Somewhere over the course of the 2007-08 season, Holy Cross got good enough to dominate the ‘B’ division, even it hadn’t played in the ‘B’ division for nearly a year.
“First game out, we’ve been dominating ever since,” says team captain Tom Monte.
The Knights had strong defense, strong goaltending, and a physical style of play that helped compensate for any skills they lacked. A case study: On February 16, in the game against St. Francis Prep, defenseman Chuck Boudiette crosses the blue line, skates to the left, pushes a St. Francis defender into the boards with his opposite hand, and slaps a strong shot to the right side of the net. The attempt is saved, but not before the Terriers kick themselves for letting all this happen on a St. Francis power play.
In 2008-09, when the Knights beat Xavier and St. Joseph-by-the-Sea and kept winning and winning and tying only twice between November 24 and February 16, it was clear that they hadn’t just emerged from a throwaway season. Somewhere amid the blowouts, they had become one of the best teams in New York City.
“They’ve just all bonded together,” says Lisa Sibilio, whose son Anthony is a goaltender. “This has been our life for the last year.”
A lighthearted locker room atmosphere seems to have played a role in that bonding. Players, Monte and Anthony Sibilio among them, make fun of each other. They keep things lighthearted after tough games. Their playfulness proceeds whether the door is open or not.
On February 16, with the Knights facing St. Francis Prep and carrying an 11-0-2 record — that’s 29 games without a loss since the start of the 2007-08 season — Lisa Sibilio is among a Holy Cross-dominated crowd that seems about as unified as the hockey team. No one sits before exchanging pleasantries with a half-dozen others. Late arrivers get ribbed by those already sitting. Most even seem to have a sense of where “their” seats lie at the recently-opened hockey arena.
The families, then, serve as a strong support base for the players on the ice, even if their support is sometimes of the nervous variety.
“You don’t even know how many times I’ve walked out. I’m like, ‘They’re making me nervous,’” Sibilio says.
No one (the St. Francis Prep audience notwithstanding) wants Holy Cross’ streak to end tonight. Not only is the Knights’ undefeated run a source of pride and vindication, not only is second-place St. Joseph-by-the-Sea nipping at Holy Cross’ heels, but there is a quiet sense of good-guy righteousness behind the Knights’ success. In a way, they’re doing it for Mike Mitchell, the league commissioner and program founder who sustained serious injuries in a Queens car accident on December 22.
Mitchell developed liver and kidney problems as a result of the accident and was in “critical but stable condition” as of January 27, his sister told The Daily News. But Frank Dunn, a former commissioner who has been running the league in Mitchell’s absence, posted on the CHSHL web site last week that “Mike’s condition has worsened” and “His family has asked that we pray for a miracle.”
“He pretty much set the tradition for this team,” head coach Kevin Goodspeed says of Mitchell, who coached when Holy Cross’ seniors were freshmen. “We think about him every game.”
With the clock ticking on February 16 and the Holy Cross Knights in a 3-2 hole thanks to a Frank Castelli hat trick, one more thought crosses the minds of those in attendance: The streak is about to end.
A wraparound attempt is stifled. Forty seconds left. A loose puck in front of the net is cleared. Twenty seconds left. The horn sounds, and the minority of St. Francis Prep fans emit a few shrieks. More than a dozen hockey players in red and blue mob each other in the middle of their end of the ice.
After the handshakes, the Holy Cross players stand outside the locker room, waiting for the door to open and not trying to hide their forlornness. Goodspeed says nothing as the players file through the doorway. Afterward, he is a bit more buoyant.
“I think we took a lot of bad penalties. … We didn’t play a very disciplined game today,” he says. “You can’t get down on yourself. We’re a good organization and a good team, and we’ve got to play smart hockey.”
The loss will sting for a while. But it will offer yet another shot at redemption. On February 28, in the opening round of the ‘B’ division playoffs, they meet St. Francis Prep again. The Knights do love their second chances.