North Haven Hockey Relying on Strong Veteran Presence
The North Haven boys’ ice hockey squad features an array of returning players that should allow the team to hit the ice skating in 2021. Senior captain forward Eli Brubacher notched eight goals and had 13 assists last year. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier)
Senior captain forward Will Fiore brings solid offensive production to North Haven after scoring eight goals to go with four assists during the 2019-’20 campaign. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier)
Senior captain defenseman Nick Howlett will be leading a staunch defensive unit for the North Haven boys’ ice hockey team this winter. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier)
Senior captain Andrew Sacco will serve as the last line of defense for North Haven at the goalkeeper position this year. Also pictured for North Haven is senior forward Aaron Racino. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier)
Last year, the North Haven boys’ ice hockey team advanced to its conference final and then made the state quarterfinals before the winter season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With just three players having graduated, Head Coach Chris Avena feels that North Haven is ahead of the curve and will be ready to go when that first puck drops this year.
“We’re one of the fortunate teams. We have almost everyone returning, and those guys know what’s expected. I know what they’re about,” said Avena. “It puts us at an advantage. There’s not a lot of ramp-up time. Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off.”
Last week, North Haven heard word that hockey will in fact be played as part of the 2021 winter season. Coach Avena now enters his third year behind the bench on the heels of a campaign that saw his club finish with an overall mark of 13-7-3.
North Haven has bid farewell to its three senior captains—Donny Funaro, Alan Tancreti III, and Jake Wentworth—from last year’s team. This season, North Haven will be led by four senior captains, forwards Eli Brubacher and Will Fiore, defenseman Nick Howlett, and goalkeeper Andrew Sacco.
Brubacher scored eight goals and had 13 assists last year, while Fiore had eight goals with four assists. Sacco won nine games in net and posted a .920 save percentage with a 2.00 goals-against average on the season.
Coach Avena said that all four captains bring something different to North Haven in the leadership department.
“Eli has the overall skillset that he brings to the rink each and every day. Will brings his passion and no-quit attitude,” Avena said. “Nick brings his organizational skills and his desire to study the game. Andrew is by far the player’s leader and is as fiery as they come.”
Senior forward Aaron Racino and senior defender Justin Marks are also returning for North Haven. Racino scored 13 goals and dished out eight assists last season. Coach Avena expects Racino to continue producing on offense and for Marks to step up on North Haven’s back line.
While Sacco is slated to once again be the starting goalkeeper, North Haven also has two other goalies on its roster in junior Jared Anderson and sophomore Bryce Petersen. Anderson picked up four victories between the pipes last year.
Coach Avena understands that COVID-19 can alter any team’s game-plan just minutes before it hits the ice. Consequently, Avena likes the fact that North Haven has some depth at the goalkeeper position.
“You never know if at 6 o’clock on a Wednesday if that...call is going to come that there is contact tracing,” said Avena. “Losing your first-string goalie on a lot of teams would really hurt. We are three levels deep at the goaltender position. In a year where you don’t know what you’re going to bring to the table, having so much depth is something we’re going to hang our hat on.”
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s plan for winter sports allowed for hockey squads to start practicing on Jan. 19 and then begin a regular season of no more than 12 games on Monday, Feb. 8. After that, conference tournaments are slated to be held in lieu of state tournaments this year. While there’s no replacing states, Coach Avena knows that North Haven may wind up facing some of its familiar Division II foes in any conference tourney.
“Everyone in SCC Division II is very fortunate. Our tournament will be as close to a true state tournament as you can get,” Avena said. “We can have a very legitimate tournament experience with some of the top teams in the state in Division II. We’re going to approach it as a true state tournament. It is as close as you’re going to get in 2021.”
Coach Avena is hoping that North Haven can improve in terms of its scoring this season. In the team’s 13 victories last year, five of those wins came by a single goal. Avena is looking for North Haven to light the lamp a bit more consistently in 2021.
“We need to score. We were very successful last year, but still had a ton of close games,” said Avena. “Our goals-for last year was 2.6. Our goals-against was 2.1. Even though the goals-for was higher, if we can score three goals a game, we would have a good opportunity against just about anybody.”
North Haven is slated to hold two days of ice skill drills before its tryouts, after which the team will begin its training camp on Monday, Jan. 26. As his team strives for another nice year on the ice, Coach Avena wants North Haven’s athletes to enjoy their opportunity to play hockey together as they continue developing the culture of the program.
“In an unusual year, the fact we get to play is something we’re very thankful for. Take every day of being together as something that we weren’t sure was going to happen,” Avena said. “Don’t take any day for granted. Compete as if it was a normal year. Keep a culture of a hard-working, team-first mentality and do the best we can for our seniors. We want to set the program up for years of success.”