ST. ALBANS — On Thursday night Bellow Free Academy will be looking to capture its 17th Division I hockey state championship when it takes on Essex at Gutterson Field House.
It will be the first title game for all the members of this year’s Bobwhite team, but for 19 of them, BFA championship games are a family tradition. They have grown up hearing the stories of championships won by their fathers and brothers.
“I became a BFA Bobwhite hockey fan in the mid ’70s when my father would bring my brothers and I to Coote Field to watch the latest game or post-season run to the championship,” said John Cioffi, who played for BFA from 1985-88 and has two sons on this year’s team.
“As a child I could feel the power and pull of the Bobwhite tradition. I was amazed by the size, speed and strength of the players as they buzzed by me while playing their game.
“I remember the many trips with the family to watch the Bobwhites take on their next challenge at the Gut. It seemed like all of St. Albans was headed to UVM to support the latest Bobwhite team.“
Over the past 42 years the 28-mile trip to Burlington has been one the Bobwhite faithful have been happy to make each spring. BFA is 77-28 all-time in the playoffs with 36 semifinal appearances and 26 Gutterson Fieldhouse finals.
“I think it is a special group of guys that share a common bond of having won a state championship for BFA,” Bobwhites head coach Toby Ducolon said. “That is a special thing without a doubt and something you will remember about for the rest of your life.”
That bond is one that all former BFA hockey players agree goes beyond their playing days as those friendships last a lifetime. Many former players give back their time and talents as coaches for the St. Albans Skating Association youth teams, to better the next generation of Bobwhites and Comets.
“Being a part of BFA hockey means that you have family wherever you go,” said Luke Cioffi, who has coached BFA’s girls hockey team to 10 state titles since its inception. “The hockey family is developed well before getting to BFA, but the experience of playing for our high school solidifies those lifelong bonds between teammates.
“BFA hockey has shown me that commitment to common goals can make a difference in the lives of so many people in various ways. The commitment needed to be successful as a hockey team relates to the core values needed to make a difference in our communities.
Tom McDonald, who has been a head coach or assistant in the Bobwhites program since 1980, said “I would say it has been a pretty consistent message throughout the years from back when Red (Gendron) was here back in the early ’80s — that there are expectations that are put upon you and either you meet those expectations or you suffer the consequences.
“I think in any real-life experience, that is great preparation for someone to understand and it has been consistent hear for the last 30 years.”
BFA has won a state-best 16 championships, including seven straight (1973-1979) and two more sets of back-to-back titles (1982-83, 87-88).
When former players talk about the Bobwhite tradition the two main topics are the championships won and the values their coaches instilled in them.
“We not only received top-notch coaching but first and foremost were taught it was always about being good people; play the game with pride and respect the officials, your opponent and your teammates,” said former Bobwhite and current Essex coach Jay Parent said.
“One of the most important things I learned playing for BFA was a sense of loyalty. Not only to my school but to my teammates. I think having this trait along with hard work, dedication and discipline instilled in the program helps the alumni succeed and become leaders.”
The 2015-16 Bobwhites are trying to become only the third BFA hockey team to win 19 or more games, joining the 1987 and 1988 championship teams. The 1988 team went 23-0 including three straight overtime playoff wins, one a double-overtime semifinal against Essex.
“I truly believe that occurred because we were a team,” John Cioffi said of the 1988 undefeated team. “We built lifelong friendships as we came together as a team. Our goal for the season was to get back to Gutterson. I can still remember at one point during our last game taking a faceoff at center ice after a goal and looking around a packed house and thinking, ‘Wow, how lucky I am to be here. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I realized during that time that putting the BFA jersey on means a lot. As a Bobwhite you are expected to be at your best every game, every shift, and no matter where you are on or off the ice. On the ice, every team wants to beat BFA no matter what. Off the ice, BFA represents a proud tradition and family that spans generations of boys and now girls.”
Six current Bobwhites — Tanner and Copper Cioffi, Kyle and Isaac Cioffi, Ethan Bonnette and Connor Wood — are sons of members of that undefeated team. As is Parent, who will try to keep the 2016 of Bobwhites from adding to their championship history.
McDonald, who has been part of nine championship teams, said comparing the past and present Bobwhite teams is difficult because the game has changed so much in 30 years.
“It is a much different game then it was in the past,” he said. “I say that from the point that our leading goal scorer this year had 14 goals. There are years when we have had many higher goal-scorers. But I think the competitiveness of the league itself and the way the game is played is so much different than some of the earlier years.
“Just watching the film of the last Essex game and seeing the competitive nature and just how little time and space these guys have now is much different than the past. I think we are a very good hockey team but like all of our teams we have some real strengths and some weaknesses. But that’s not any different than any of the past teams either.”
Parent was quicker to draw similarities to this year’s Bobwhites and the championship team he was part of.
“The BFA team in 1987-88 was extremely deep and a lot like this year’s BFA team,” Parent said. “Anytime you can throw four lines, eight defensemen and three goalies out and not really notice a significant difference from top to bottom, that says a lot about your program.
“The coaching staff at BFA does such a great job of training their players and challenging them as individuals and as a team to be better at the end than they were in mid-November.”
Big game ahead
At one point this season the No. 1 seed Bobwhites (18-2-2) rolled off 15 straight wins. They were undefeated until Spaulding’s Justin Laperle stopped 41 shots to end BFA’s quest for a perfect season. No. 2 Essex (17-4-1) then knocked off BFA on the last day of the season as Eric Short kept St4. Albans at bay until the Hornets could get some goals.
Ducolon and McDonald agreed with Parent that teams change so much during the season that the games against each other won’t have much of an impact on what happens Thursday night. Essex is also working around an investigation into what investigators termed “inappropriate behavior” involving at least two players, one of whom — senior Alex Giummo — has been suspended from the team. Giummo scored the winning goal in last year’s triple-overtime championship game. Longtime head coach Bill O’Neill was placed on administrative leave from the team as investigations proceed.
“I think both teams are different than before,” Ducolon said. “Obviously they have a different lineup than they did the first game of the season because of the stuff they have had issues with, and we will be different because we were missing guys the last time.”
McDonald added, “Both teams are very competitive, especially when they play each other. It really doesn’t matter what time of year you play them you are going to get the same game. That is one of the beauties of Essex — it’s always a high-quality, high-spirited, high-intensity game.”
Parent said one of Essex biggest concerns will be dealing with the Bobwhites’ deep experience.
“BFA is extremely fast and as I said earlier, there isn’t much difference from their first and fourth line,” Parent said. “We will need to play at a pace that is uncomfortable for us and be very disciplined in all three zones.
“We will need to play great team defense and have Shortie stand tall as he has done all year. Playing with a sense of urgency but also not giving up odd-man rushes will help us on the bigger ice surface.”
Ducolon agreed that Short and Gutterson’s big rink will be factors.
“We love the idea of the space and we love the idea of using our depth and taking advantage of it,” Ducolon said. “We practiced there yesterday and we did a nice job covering the ice. We were very pleased with the execution and the effort of the practice.
“We have to get a couple of goals on Short. If we can get a couple by him we will be in good shape. He is obviously their best player and hopefully we can get to him and get a couple of pucks by him.”