TG hockey: a team for the ages

Posted 6/10/04

By JOE HATTONSpecial to the BeaconRhode Islanders have heard about it. New Englanders have heard about it. By now, most of the country has heard about it, too. Mount St. Charles' reign as high school hockey king has ended, and everyone will remember …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

TG hockey: a team for the ages

By JOE HATTONSpecial to the Beacon
Rhode Islanders have heard about it. New Englanders have heard about it. By now, most of the country has heard about it, too. Mount St. Charles' reign as high school hockey king has ended, and everyone will remember the Titans.
But do you really know the Titans?
On Tuesday, April 27, the Toll Gate hockey family honored this year's team at its annual banquet. The traditional motions were carried out, but for the first time ever a new centerpiece was added to the ceremony. The triumphant victory on March 20, 2004, represents not only a historic moment in time but the ultimate destination of a long journey.
In the fall of 1972, Toll Gate High School opened its doors for the first time, with newly appointed Principal Robert J. Shapiro presiding over the student body. Leaves fell, the temperature dropped, and the first hockey season at Toll Gate ushered in. In charge of directing the upstart program was head coach Dan Sheehan. The Titans' roster consisted mostly of juniors. There were three seniors and a handful of sophomores. All together, there was just enough to outfit a varsity lineup.
The Titans spent their inaugural season in the Metropolitan B division but played every team in the Met A, B and C divisions at least once. The club took its fair share of thrashings at the hands of powerhouses like Burrillville, Mount St. Charles and East Providence, but managed to challenge teams like Cranston East, Cranston West, Pilgrim and Warwick Vets. Within two years the number of hockey players matriculating to Toll Gate increased, and the Titans' level of competition was on the rise.
By the fall of 1977, Sheehan had moved on and Cy Romans was crowned as the new coach. Through his first three seasons behind the Toll Gate bench, Romans collected an 8-54 record, but as the City of Warwick grew, so, too, did the youth program, and with that came the influx of spirited young hockey players.
As players worked their way from Mites to Pee-Wees, others were growing into their high school skates. Although likely unaware at the time, these student-athletes were rooting a tradition that has grown as deep and as strong as oak.
By the fall of 1986, Kevin Delaney had grabbed hold of the head coaching reigns, and Mike Gaffney was appointed as his assistant. The divisions had been realigned, and by the end of the '86-‘87 season, Toll Gate was competing for a Met B1-Small title. The Titans fell to city rival Warwick Vets in their first ever title series, but it served to foreshadow the good things to come.
Building off the prior season's success, Gaffney assumed the head coaching job in the fall of '87 and did not disappoint. With a core of young players, among them a freshman goaltender named Will Parker, the Titans knocked off East Providence in two games to take the 1988 Met B1-Small title. Keenly aware of the talent pool that seemed only to be getting deeper, Gaffney wasted little time in meeting with then-principal Shapiro, Warwick's current superintendent of schools, to discuss a move to the Met A division.
“When Mike [Gaffney] came to me with the issue of moving up, I told him that my biggest concern was competition,” Shapiro recalls. “No one likes to always be at the bottom, so we talked about the kids' ability to compete with the parochial schools and how they could contend physically.”
Citing the great deal of support for the program, and emphasizing the excitement that the program's success was generating, Shapiro recounted, “Mike convinced me we could do it.”
Toll Gate joined the Met A Division in the fall of 1988 and for five straight seasons duked it out with parochial heavyweights La Salle, Mount and Bishop Hendricken. Each season yielded positives but also ended abruptly with playoff losses to La Salle. The Titans had yet to make a finals appearance since moving up, but their will to battle continued to attract prospective young student-athletes.
“Toll Gate, academically, is a very good school, and Mike Gaffney [is] an exceptional coach,” said Joe Cavanagh, a Toll Gate hockey parent who fostered a handful of prodigious offspring to the Titans' program. “I believe my kids greatly benefited from having been able to practice with him 4-5 days a week and to have been exposed to his approach to the game.”
During the summer of 1993, the divisions were again realigned, and in addition to two new teams, many new faces dotted the high school hockey landscape. For the Toll Gate Titans, one of those belonged to a girl. She was a sophomore goaltender who appeared in only one game that season, but even then Sara DeCosta proved that she could compete with the boys.
“The great thing about the Toll Gate program is that it [teaches] kids how to play hockey the right way,” said Cavanagh, who joined the Titans' coaching staff as an assistant to start the '94-‘95 season. “They play a system where younger players learn from older ones and everyone is treated with respect.”
In the spring of 1996, DeCosta's senior season, Toll Gate put years of prior defeat at the hands of La Salle behind them, winning back-to-back games and advancing to the State Finals. It was the first time a public school had contended for the title since Cranston East in 1984. The Titans faced a stiff test in the Mounties of Mount St. Charles Academy, a proven hockey program that had been dominating Rhode Island schoolboy hockey since 1978. The Titans gave the Mounties all that they could handle in the first game of that series, before finally submitting in overtime. The following night, Toll Gate did something no team, public or private, had ever done – shutout the Mount in Game 2 to keep the series going. Mount went on to win the deciding game, but the Titans' accomplishments were widely recognized.
Following DeCosta's departure, the Titans returned to the title series, this time falling in two games, but the fact that they had made it that far was a clear indication that Toll Gate hockey was moving in the right direction. In the fall of '97, Will Parker returned to his alma mater to join the coaching staff as an assistant. Over the course of the next six seasons, throngs of talented hockey players donned Titan jerseys. The likes of Foster, Carosi, Callaghan and Berardinelli represent but a few who were highlighted as All-Division, in some cases All-State, players. Another developing trend was the enrollment of hockey families. Brothers and cousins made their way through the ranks. The Martins, the Mayers, the Venticinques, the Smiths, the Cavanaghs and, of course, the Gaffneys. Toll Gate had not simply grown its hockey program; it bred a family.
In September 2003, with another season on the horizon, the Toll Gate hockey family was informed that Gaffney, who had spent 16 years behind the bench, was stepping down. Parker, Gaffney's longtime assistant and friend, was chosen to lead the next generation of Titans.
“I was very fortunate in that we always had good players,” said Gaffney. “We had a terrific feeder system in the Warwick Junior Hockey League, and as a result we were able to compete against the best teams in New England. I think when someone new takes over there's new enthusiasm, new blood. In a way it was old blood, but it's different when you're an assistant. It was time for someone else to put their mark on the team.”
Parker began that process by assembling his core of assistants. In doing so, former Titan teammates Chris McNally, Dave Tober and Ray Flynn were selected for the respective roles. As a unit, they shared a similar hockey philosophy, one that had been inspired by their high school hockey coach. The new coach had inherited a crop of talented players, but as has been said of all great coaches, it's the ability to mold that talent into a congealed army that separates the winners from the losers.
“I felt it was a matter of moving forward,” said Parker. “You can't compare yourself. If you try to be somebody you're not, you're in trouble. I think you bring your own personality to it [as head coach]. Being a teacher, they know me on a different level.”
Of the 21 players on the Titans' 2003-2004 roster, 15 were returning lettermen, but only about half of them had logged a significant amount of ice time the previous season. With the Injury Fund, the Memorial Scholarship game and the Christmas tournament on the schedule, Parker used December as a feeling-out period.
Recognizing that the team would benefit most from having its best all-around player on the ice as much as possible, the decision was made to have senior captain Alex Hager, a career forward, man a blueline position. For some players, such a move could throw off their entire rhythm, but Hager took it in stride. He had already proven he was more than capable of handling such a task, having been issued similar duties the prior season and having received All-Division recognition for his efforts.
The new hockey season also brought together three scoring aces to form the Titans' top line. Junior center John Cavanagh was flanked by classmate Pat Aldridge and senior assistant captain Jon Nelson. Through the first five games of 2004, Toll Gate appeared unstoppable. A lopsided victory over Warwick Vets kicked-started a winning streak that saw back-to-back victories over Bishop Hendricken and La Salle. With half the season already in the books, Toll Gate's top line occupied the top three scoring positions in the division.
On January 30, the Titans made their last visit of the season to Adelard Arena in Woonsocket. Toll Gate handily outshot the opposition, 36-25, but came up short in a 3-1 loss to the Mount. The defeat, however, was not enough to take the wind out of the Titans' sails. Piloted by their top line, the Titans welcomed the Mounties to Warwick by handing them only their second loss of the season. The victory served as a boost of confidence, but more so proved to be a telling tale that by playing their self proclaimed “blue-collar style” of Toll Gate hockey, the Titans could not only play with, but beat, anybody.
Then came the news – Nelson was done. He wasn't injured, but all the same had played his last game as a Titan. He had accrued 24 points in just nine games, but because of academic ineligibility would not be able to finish the season. It was a tough pill for Nelson and his teammates to swallow, but ultimately it was simply another obstacle to overcome.
“He was a big part of the team,” said Parker. “But you can't let your team dwell on that. They have to know that we are going to keep moving forward.”
And onward they did march.
With five games left in the regular season, Chris Labella was given the opportunity to step up. Taking over Nelson's vacated spot on the Titans' top line, Labella wasted no time in showing what he could do. In his first test against Warwick, Labella racked up five points, including the game-winning goal. The junior forward provided an encore performance the following night against Hendricken, potting two goals and solidifying his place among the Titans' key offensive contributors. It was also during this time that senior defenseman Mark Barrett was promoted to assistant captain and dutifully took his game up several notches.
Barrett, who had his own academic concerns at the start of the year, was fortunate to not only be in position to take on such an important role, but to simply be playing at all. Born with a heart condition that he was made aware of at a young age, Barrett had developed complications after his freshman year. It was more than just serious, it was life threatening. With his dream of playing hockey for Toll Gate in jeopardy, Barrett underwent open-heart surgery in May 2002, began a recovery process and defied the odds. He landed a varsity job December of that same year. Receiving lettered recognition was a long time coming for Barrett, but whether he knew it or not he had been leading long before the “A” was ever sewn on his sweater.
When the playoffs kicked into gear in March, the key components seemed to be in place for the Titans, but in the end goaltending would prove to be the deciding factor. After a freshman year spent refining his craft, netminder Brad Valois earned the starting job as a sophomore. Coming in untested, Valois displayed the poise and the forte of a seasoned vet. His six shutouts that season were more then any other goalie. As a junior, Valois picked up right where he left off, parlaying a successful regular season campaign into a strong playoff performance.
With sterling goaltending and a total team effort from the Titans' top line down to the grinders, it came with much fanfare but little surprise to those who paid attention that Toll Gate was headed back to the finals for the first time in seven years. What then transpired over the course of the following weekend can only be described as surreal – a dream come true, not only for the 21 young men in Titan uniforms that evening, and not just for the four coaches that celebrated on the ice. It was something that the entire Toll Gate hockey family wept over. Tears of joy were shed honorably, as a tribute to the passion and the hard work of so many former Titans. From the inaugural class to the most recent alums, the Toll Gate hockey community has become as tight knit as any you will find in the sport, statewide or otherwise. For those who were there that night, on the ice, on the benches, in the stands, in the press box, or even just in spirit, the memories will last a lifetime.
“It's all over,” resonated throughout the arena.
Something was over. Something had ended, and in its place, something else began. A Titan dynasty? It's possible. A Mount comeback? It's possible. A new high school hockey regime? It's possible.
The truth is, anything is possible. Just ask a Toll Gate Titan.
Joe Hatton is a former goaltender for the Toll Gate hockey team, graduating in 2002. His work has been featured previously in the Beacon and in the West Bay section of the Providence Journal.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here