Interview With Avon’s John Gardner, on the Cusp of Win #800
Entering this season, his 47th behind the Avon Old Farms bench, John Gardner’s record is a remarkable 799-278-51, with eight New England championships. His next win as head coach will, of course, be his 800th, and that’s cause for celebration, as there is no other person who is a greater symbol of prep hockey, how it’s grown over the last half-century, and where it stands today, than he.
Gardner started coaching at Avon in ’75-76, a year after graduating from Wesleyan, where he was a goaltender on the hockey team, and an infielder on the baseball team. It took a few years of hard work to get Avon’s program on its feet, and then it just took off. Gardner’s enthusiasm for coaching and his competitive nature never seems to wane. Nor does his sense of humor. He’s one of our favorite people to chat with, so we did just that recently.
Is this going to be your last year?
I don’t know. I haven’t decided. Everybody asks me that. I’m going to play my cards close to the vest right now. I still enjoy working with the kids. Last year we worked pretty hard because we were on the ice every day in the fall, working with three different groups because they suspended the NEPSAC rules. But I’m looking forward to this coming year, and we’ll see what happens.
Do you have any goals?
(Laughs) What do you think? Of course! Mostly I’m looking forward to working with the kids. I thought I had a pretty good team lined up last year. Our administration allowed us to play. We got 16 games in. There were a few schools that did everything they needed to do to play and be safe and we were one of them. Most of the schools said ‘Screw it.’ Believe me, I used that when I recruited this year. I said, “Why would you want to go to that school? They didn’t put their ice down, just to save money.”
What were some of the innovations you incorporated to make it a good experience for the kids and their development?
What we did in the fall is we had three groups that wanted to play hockey; that was their #1 sport. We divided them up by skill and we worked with them six days a week. Saturdays we did intersquad scrimmages and put it on livestream for the college guys. For ten or eleven weeks in the fall, I think we did a really good job with the kids. It was all skill development and for a while there we weren’t supposed to do any combative drills because of Covid. As you can imagine, the goalies were getting shelled!
Last year, I lost kids to the NCDC, a couple guys to the USHL, but I had some younger kids, ‘05s, step up and gain valuable experience. I think I was able to present them with an opportunity and they seized it. They made an impression and hopefully that will translate into them being pretty good players for us this year. It’s tough being an ’05 in our league. That would correlate to an ’06 being able to play this year.
The other thing that happened, Chris, was that our admissions were off the charts as far as hockey was concerned.
Why do you think that was?
Several reasons. The backup, for one. The number of Canadian kids who just wanted to get out of Canada because they didn’t know if they’d be able to play there, and then I think a lot of the public schools did a horrible job educating the kids with the hybrid learning. It’s just not the same as being in a class. I think we (private schools) and our headmaster made a really good effort to provide a good experience for the kids. That’s all you can ask for.
Will this be a big year for PGs?
Yes, goalies are incredibly backed up. Our goalie, Connor Callaghan, has opted to stay for another year and I’m certainly glad we have him. He’s a really good goalie. We see it even more in football with a lot of kids reclassifying (repeating) because they didn’t have any season at all last year.
What was it like playing games without spectators?
We actually had some. We played Salisbury ten times and Salisbury allowed some fans at their place. They allowed fifty obnoxious fans into the building so we’d have the benefit of that lovely atmosphere (Note: Gardner grew up at and graduated from Salisbury, where his father taught. So he can poke fun.)
Here (at Avon), we allowed parents to come. They had to observe social distancing rules. One game we had some fifty students. They were in one section, parents in another. It was crazy.
I think this year, they’ll allow people in, but they’ll have to wear masks inside. That seems to be the way things are going. We are having school meetings inside and everyone’s wearing masks.
We required a vaccine for the kids, as a lot of schools have done. People like me are looking for our third shot.
Do you think having kids on campus every weekend is better than fall split-season hockey?
Yeah, you know I’ve been trying to change that split-season model because I think it’s a rip-off. Take the (Labor Day) tournament in Boston. All these kids are asking me, “Hey, are you gonna come up and watch me? Here’s my game schedule.” I looked at it and it went from 2010s down to 2004s. It was 18 pages long! At all these rinks around Boston. And I’m like, “This is overwhelming.” And then you look at the math and how much they’re making. It’s almost enough to get me to quit and just run showcases (Laughs).
What are some alternatives?
Well, last year I was supposed to have a 15-only team and we were all set to go. It wasn’t Avon Old Farms, but it was Avon Youth Hockey. A long time ago (former Kent coach) Matt Herr and I talked about doing things like that. I was finally able to get it done this year and now we have a AAA U15 team. They were finally able to play their first games two weekends ago. They were a big draw. They’ll do four or five showcases and practice a couple of times during the week so they’re getting the necessary skill development. We have an outside coach, Ross Dufresne, who played for me. He was a captain at Wesleyan and lives in the area. Brian Strait comes and runs some workouts. Brian lives in Avon now, and scouts for the Devils. We can get on the ice in small groups, NESCAC said. We just can’t go on the ice with them. We let the older kids jump on the ice twice a week, and the younger kids twice a week. The older kids are doing split-season, running around with Mid-Fairfield and the Rats and all those other people. It keeps them happy and they get their games in. The future could look different. I give Cushing a lot of credit for what they set up. What do they call them? The Central Mass Penguins U15, U16, U18? I think that’s sort of the future of prep school hockey.
With our U15 team, I ran it by our head of school and he said alright as long as the kids aren’t leaving campus every weekend to get to some stupid showcase. Instead, they stay on campus and do the normal things you want prep school students to do. It’s a big draw for the parents. The parents like it. They think it’s a good balance of prep school and hockey. I think that’s the future. I think we – the prep schools – should run showcases. We’ve been talking about it. NEPSAC is so big and unwieldy that I think it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around doing that. It’s too big a change. You know, “We want kids to play three sports.” But kids don’t play three sports anymore! They just don’t. We have a PG from Melrose High School who’s the quarterback on the football team, a forward on the hockey team, and long stick on the lacrosse team. But he’s a throwback. We just don’t have that anymore. I encourage (hockey players) to play a spring sport. I think it’s good to shut down hockey for a couple months. You need to be fresh. Too many people play twelve months a year.
Who will be assisting you this season?
Same guys. Geoff Barlow, our AD. Mikey Pereira and Mike Murphy. Plus John Dunham is coming back for another year. He needs something to do in his retirement and he enjoys coming over here every day. So essentially the same staff, which I’m really happy about.
Who are some of your top newcomers, difference-makers?
Yeah, I think we have a few who are going to help us.
We got a kid from the Chicago Mission, Brennan Ali (’04), a big strong center committed to Notre Dame who we really like. He’s going to make a difference. He’s a force. He’ll be an important player for us.
We got a kid from the Pittsburgh Pens Elite, Matt DiMarsico, who’s also a difference-maker. He’s a Penn State commit. He just scores.
We got a Russian who’s really good, Nikita Nikora. He’s a junior ’04 who played in Western Canada (Notre Dame Hounds of Wilcox, Sask.). He’s a pretty talented forward.
We have a Canadian kid, a forward who’s going to be pretty good. Charlie Gollob. He’s an ’04 from Toronto (Markham Majors U16). He’s a big strong kid. We thought that, as a team, we’d need to be bigger and stronger.
And Brendan Fennell, the three-sport athlete I mentioned, is an ’03 PG from Melrose (Mass.) High.
We have a couple of D. One is a kid from Manitoba, Sam Court (Steinbach Pistons – MJHL). I think he’s a pretty talented defenseman. He’s an ’04 and is on a lot of peoples’ radar. And we have a transfer from Pope Francis, a repeat junior (’04) named Jack Kennedy, just like the president.
Who’s the best player you ever coached?
That’s easy. Brian Leetch. He’s an NHL All-Star. He’s in the Hall of Fame so, yeah, he’s the best player I ever coached.
(This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.)
Beantown Fall Classic Schedule, Rosters
The Beantown Fall Classic (18U, 16U, 15U, Premier, NCDC) starts Thursday, with limited action, before really heating up Friday and Saturday. The showcase winds up on Halloween, October 31st. The primary rink will be the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass. Satellite rinks include the Worcester Ice Center, Navin (Marlborough), and Northstar (Westborough).
All games from NESC will be broadcast live on HockeyTV.com
There will be a lot of teams here, from Maine to California. Most organizations will be sending more than one team. Teams from outside the northeast include the Chicago Mission, Compuware, Oakland (Mich.) Jr. Grizzlies, California Wave, Florida Alliance, and Team Maryland. Northwood School will be on hand. So will Avon's U15 Team, and Cushing's teams. And many more.
2021 Beantown Fall Classic Schedule (Excel)
2021 Beantown Fall Classic Rosters (Excel)
NHL Central Scouting's Players to Watch List
Below you will find a link to a printable PDF of NHL Central Scouting's Players to Watch list. Players are ranked as A, B, or C's.
Very few A's are handed out this early in the process. The only skater in New England to get an "A" ranking is Northeastern freshman center Jack Hughes, who was at St. Sebastian's until leaving after his sophomore season for Ann Arbor and the NTDP.
Of the New England prep players, the highest ranking was a "B" and it went to just one player: Avon Old Farm's new junior center Brennan Ali, a Notre Dame commit for 2023.
ECC College Cup Rosters & Schedules
The ECC College Cup is this weekend in Connectict. The U18 and U16 Red and Blue divisions will be played at the Northford Ice Pavilion and Hamden Ice Rink. The 15U and 14U divisions will be at Danbury Arena.
ECC College Cup Rosters and Schedules
Former Prep Stars Big in NHL Openers
Four former prep stars scored five goals between them on opening night for the NHL, and a couple are particularly noteworthy.
Neither Ryan Donato (Dexter/Harvard) nor Brian Boyle (St. Sebastian's/BC) even had contracts prior to going to camp last month on PTOs (Player Tryout Agreements). Boyle didn't even play in the NHL last year, though he had represented the U.S. at the IIHF World Championships. San Jose, on the other hand, declined offering Donato a $2.15 million qualifying offer, thus making him available. Donato and Boyle both signed $750,000 one-way deals for the upcoming season.
Donato, 25, made a little hockey history by scoring the first-ever goal for the expansion Seattle Kraken, thus forever making him the answer to a trivia question. However, the Kraken fell to Vegas, 4-3. Boyle, 36, signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and tallied his first NHL goal in 14 months in a 6-2 win over defending Stanley Cup champs Tampa Bay, who got a goal from Alex Killorn (Deerfield/Harvard).
The biggest thorn in the side of Seattle was Max Pacioretty (Taft/Michigan), who figured in three of Vegas' four goals with a 2 goal, 1 assist night.
-- Taft did some work on Odden Arena over the summer. Among the renovations: reducing the former Olympic-sized sheet to NHL size.
-- Deerfield will be celebrating 100 years of Deerfield hockey this winter. Over the weekend of Jan. 21-22 there will be two games and an alumni banquet. On Friday the 21st, the Big Green will face St. Paul's, and on Saturday the 22nd, they'll face off vs. archrival Choate. Expect Deerfield to be looking sharp in old-timey unis.
Large School/Small School Breakdown
Attached below is the Large School/Small School breakdown for NEPSIHA (New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association) for the 2021-22 academic year.
This comes into play in the postseason, when teams which haven't made the Elite 8, are seeded, respectively, for the large and small school playoff championships.
Schools are designated either large or small by male enrollment. Schools in the left-hand column are designated large and schools in the right-hand column are small.
In addition, the league's affiliate members are listed at the bottom of the document. Please note that Wyoming Seminary (Kingston, PA), though not listed, is indeed a NEPSIHA affiliate member. Affiliate members are not eligible for NEPSIHA post-season play.
After one season at Trinity College, the prep playoffs will return to St. Anselm College (Manchester, NH) on the first weekend of March 2022.
Large School/Small School Breakdown
Beast Columbus Day Schedule & Rosters
The Beast Columbus Day Tournament (U18, U16,15) gets underway tonight at a plethora of rinks around Eastern Mass, as well as Rhode Island and southern New Hampshire. No shortage of games to pick from here!