Saturday, Dec. 26, will be a day of pleasant recuperation for many people — picking up errant bits of wrapping paper, sweeping up pine needles, discovering crinkled candy wrappers and abandoned hot cocoa mugs in all corners of the house. A sleepy sense of holiday cheer pervades.
In dozens of households, a familiar December routine will also be taking place — rustling up gloves and warm layers, finding a pair of matching socks, threading a fresh pair of laces into skates, yelling to mom or dad while digging through a closet to help find a favorite hockey stick.
These winter warriors aren’t kids, though; they’re alumni of Stowe High School, preparing to play in a special game that’s been going strong for around 15 years.
In the beginning
Though the actual date of the first Stowe High School alumni hockey game is uncertain, it was somewhere around the turn of the century.
The Stowe High school hockey program had a soft start in the 1970s, but the “start of the modern area,” according to longtime ref and local hockey historian Leo Clark, was Dec. 5, 1991 — the first home game played at the Jackson Arena.
The first state championship came in 1995 under coaches D.J. Masi, Whit Hartt and Don McDowell, followed by titles in 1997 and 1999.
In 2002, the Stowe High Raiders had been bumped up from Division 2 to big-school Division 1, and the kids needed extra conditioning to keep up with the new challenges.
A group of parents and coaches formed the Friends of Stowe High School Hockey around that time, providing support to the teams and raising money for training and incidentals.
Over the years, the hockey program’s leadership evolved as kids grew and graduated, and a host of local hockey families cycled through the lines of support — Dalmasse, Von Trapp, Kneale, Parda, Post, Williams, Godin, McKechnie, Graddock, Sykas, Haab, Nichols, Grosvenor, Vigneau, O’Brien, Gay, Lipsky, Meehan — a roster that looks a lot like the names seen at alumni games in recent history.
In the beginning, most of the players and spectators of the alumni games were people directly involved in the high school or hockey community, said Jacquie Crittenberger-Geissler, one of the event organizers and mother of three former Stowe High hockey players.
In 2006, the nature of the game changed. Jordan Carrell, a 2003 Stowe High graduate, had a bad accident while snowboarding on Mount Mansfield, and a spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Friends and family immediately went into action. Organizers of the alumni hockey game and an alumni basketball game turned the focus to fundraising for Carrell, netting thousands of dollars in donations and an outpouring of support for the family.
“It was the biggest crew we had of alumni coming back,” Crittenberger-Geissler said.
“The whole school came, the whole town came … so much emotion and good feelings.”
Nearly 50 alums came back that year to play, packing the bench and playing only short shifts to ensure everyone got ice time.
Carrell spent several months in intense rehabilitation, and is still extremely active — playing sled hockey with the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association, handcycling in events like the Darn Tough and Kelly Brush rides, and, yes, still shredding the slopes.
Evolution of tradition
Over the next few years, the ritual lost a bit of momentum as the game’s date changed — they tried playing New Year’s weekend, but “often there were no alums around after Jan. 1,” Crittenberger-Geissler said. One year there were only 15 alumni players.
Additionally, the girls’ game began to fizzle. “There just weren’t as many girl players in the area,” Crittenberger-Geissler said. “Maybe eight girls would show up, play four on four or five on five. It just was exhausting and kind of wasn’t as fun for them,” she said, although quite a few girls have since returned to play with the boys.
“We would really like to see (the girls’ game) come back,” Crittenberger-Geissler said.
The organizers decided to set a permanent appointment for Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, hoping many grads would still be in town with their families.
“We put pressure on the rink in a friendly way to say this is a really important thing that’s fun for alums and the town,” Crittenberger-Geissler said, and the support from the rink, including Parks Superintendent Bruce Godin and Arena Superintendent Tony Whitaker, has been incredible.
“This has gone beyond the Friends of Stowe High School Hockey,” Crittenberger-Geissler said. “It’s part of the fabric of the town.”
Another large shift in the event came a few years ago when the game changed to alumni vs. alumni, rather than the graduates playing the current high school team. While high schoolers may be similar in height to the alums, it’s hard to put a 6-foot, 170-pound 17-year-old against a thirty-something guy who’s been working as a builder for the past decade.
“Now high school coaches don’t worry that the kids are going to get tossed around,” Crittenberger-Geissler said. “That also solved our problem of too many alums on the bench.”
Last year, nearly 40 alumni showed up to play, with teams split up by age — before and after the year 2008. The older team was bested 11-10; the senior coach said endurance and stamina had ultimately trumped experience.
These ties bind
Evie Dworetzky, one of the event organizers, says the bonds between hockey players are as strong after graduation as before.
Her son, Luke O’Toole, was the captain of the 2014 Stowe High hockey team that won the school’s first state championship since 1999, but she remembers the youth hockey days just as fondly — Coach Rich Haab’s use of the “hustle bar,” a huge chocolate bar, to motivate the little ones (“he got all the kids to work hard; it didn’t matter if you scored a goal”), and driving to 6 a.m. Mites games in Highgate.
The kids may grow up and leave the nest, but when they return, they’re out on the ice again.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Dworetzky said. “When they come home, they all want to go to stick and puck. It’s a real bond.”
There’s no shortage of skill: former National and American Hockey league players often return, as do collegiate players and professional athletes and coaches.
“The younger guys now know about Graham Mink and John Flint, and they’re like, whoa, they’re coming back and playing? We definitely want to play with them,’” Crittenberger-Geissler said. “Stowe greats are back and consistently coming, and that gives the younger players something to look up to.”
‘A strong community’
“In general, it’s a feel-good event,” Crittenberger-Geissler said. “It’s really neat how it’s morphed into much more than just a time for alumni to have fun seeing each other … they try to get their old lines on ice and they have fun ribbing each other … but they love coming and supporting the local community members that need extra help.”
Last year, the event raised more than $1,000 for Rowan Dodge, a Stowe second-grader who was battling a second bout of a rare childhood kidney cancer. As of today, Rowan is celebrating eight months cancer-free.
This year, local beneficiaries are Erica Ciaraldi, a Morristown resident who was badly injured in a November car accident, and Heidi Noonan, a physical therapist at the Sports and Rehab Clinic who suffered a serious spinal cord injury while kite-boarding on Lake Champlain in October.
“Every year we reach out to community members in need, and that’s our mission now,” Crittenberger-Geissler said. “It’s a draw for parents and fans to come out and support somebody in town that really needs an extra boost.”
A room in the arena
This year’s game, the third to be played since the new Stowe Arena was built where Jackson once stood, holds extra significance.
A room in the arena will be dedicated to Marc von Trapp and Alex Kende, Stowe High graduates and standout athletes in the class of 1996 who died within two years of each other — Von Trapp in a van accident while on spring break in 1998, and Kende from a serious illness in 2000.
Money was raised by and for the class of 1996, with the intention of giving something to the rink. This September, the Stowe Select Board approved allocation of the money in the boys’ memory to the Stowe Arena.
“We’ve been waiting for it and I’m glad it’s happened, and we’re very glad the town is being so generous,” said Pat von Trapp, Marc’s mother.
She’ll be at this year’s alumni game, along with other family and friends of Marc and Alex.
“I go to see them just because I like seeing the kids play,” Pat said. “It’s a great gathering.
“George and I are both very appreciative of the town and the townspeople so willing to support Marc and Alex and keep their memory alive,” Pat said.
“Stowe is a strong community and hockey is strong within the community.”