By Dan Guttenplan
---- — To understand the move to Division 1 for the Newburyport and Triton hockey programs, you have to understand the two men steering the respective programs.
Paul Yameen took over the Newburyport hockey program in 2003-04, a year after the Clippers went 7-11-1 and averaged 15 minutes of penalties per game. After leading the Clippers to a record of 4-15-1 in his first season as a head coach at the high school level, Yameen turned the program around in a hurry.
The Clippers qualified for the Division 2 North tournament every season from 2004 to 2013. Yameen’s Clippers won the Division 2 state championship in 2009, then went back to the TD Garden for the second time in two years the next season, when they fell to Canton in the state-championship game.
Like many coaches who experience sustained success, Yameen always wants more. Over the last few years, he’s become irritated by the state of high school hockey. He’s seen some of the top teams in the Cape Ann League leave in pursuit of more competitive conferences. He’s seen weaker teams in the Cape Ann League round out their non-league schedules with Division 3 opponents. He’s seen referees fill up the stat sheets with Newburyport penalties, citing his team for what Yameen believes to be legal hits against smaller opponents. Finally, he’s seen select Division 1 coaches refuse to schedule games against his team because they have nothing to gain from the contest.
The man behind Triton’s move to Division 1 is Drew Wile, who is in his second stint with the Vikings. Wile played football under legendary coach Jack Welch at Ipswich High, and adopted many of Welch’s coaching philosophies. Also shaping Wile’s coaching philosophy was his stint as an assistant at Catholic Memorial, where he helped lead CM to six Super Eight championships in eight seasons.
In Wile’s first year at Triton in 2006-07, he led the Vikings to a record of 11-5-5. He lost his job at the end of the season because he refused to award a varsity letter to a player who fell ill during the season and did not remain a part of the team through the banquet.
The program declined quickly after Wile’s departure. The Vikings logged a record of 10-37-8 in the three years without him. Wile was rehired at Triton before the 2010-11 season, and the team quickly returned to being one of the best in the Cape Ann League. The Vikings have gone 38-24-5 over the last three seasons, including a Cape Ann League title in 2011-12. Like Yameen, Wile’s influence on the program has been immense in terms of wins and losses. A Wile-coached Triton team has never fallen short of qualifying for the state tournament.
Yameen and Wile are united in their belief that the Newburyport and Triton hockey communities deserve better. Although they coach rivals on the ice, they are streamlined in their long-term visions. They both believe a high school team will only benefit from competing against the best. They both believe a state-of-the-art facility will appeal to players who might otherwise attend private schools. They both believe they can provide better avenues to college hockey for their players if they provide situations in which scouts can assess their teams playing against the best. They both believe high school programs should have year-round weight-lifting programs. They both believe their respective schools can one day play in the Super Eight Tournament.
“The whole thing is raising the bar,” Wile said. “If this was an academic setting, I doubt there’d be any nay-sayers. We’re talking about raising the credibility of our athletic programs and taking it to a more competitive setting.”
From the ground up
Before the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association granted the applications for the move to Division 1, the organization required a four-year commitment from the local teams.
The philosophy behind the required commitment is that teams should not apply for Division 1 status if a particularly strong senior class is coming through the pipeline. It is intended to be a permanent move for an entire hockey community.
“The train is rolling,” Yameen said. “This is a four-year commitment, but I have no plans to go back. I want more Division 1 games, not less.”
When Yameen and Wile speak about the Newburyport and Triton communities, they can do so with the knowledge of being involved at every level. Yameen and his staff work closely with Newburyport Youth Hockey, sharing coaching strategies and implementing a weight-lifting programs for eighth-graders. Wile helps coach his son’s youth team in Triton Youth Hockey, and challenges coaches and league directors to put together difficult schedules for the youth players.
Newburyport Youth Hockey has 135 players spread across five levels, and the talent is particularly strong in grades 6 through 8. Triton Youth Hockey has close to 200 players, although the high school team’s numbers are well short of the 60 Newburyport boasts. The reason for the discrepancy in high school participation is two-fold: Wile has only three uninterrupted years on the job at Triton to Yameen’s 10 at Newburyport. Also, Wile just lost a handful of players when he announced the move to Division 1.
“By making the jump, we find out who wants to be a hockey player, and who just wants to play hockey,” Wile said. “I know I want hockey players. The schedule is not going to get any easier because I’m not going to make it any easier. Going Division 1 will open more doors than you can imagine. I expect a dip in numbers at first, but the plan doesn’t change.”
The changing complexion of the CAL
Once considered one of the top hockey conferences in Division 2, the Cape Ann League has taken major hits in the last five years. Perennial CAL championship contender Wilmington left the CAL after the 2009-10 season to join the Middlesex Conference. Another top-tier CAL team, North Andover, left after the 2010-11 season for the Merrimack Valley Conference. Masconomet is expected to leave the CAL after this season. Longtime Lynnfield coach Vin Mirasolo left for a job with Division 1 Melrose last season.
The only addition to the CAL in recent years has been Saugus, although the Sachems are not nearly as competitive as they were when they won back-to-back Division 2 state titles in 2003 and 2004.
“My gripe is let’s up the bar (in the CAL),” Yameen said. “Let’s up the ante. I don’t want to see our league scheduling Division 3 teams constantly in non-league games.”
Many of Yameen’s top players commit to his year-round training program. It was by design that Yameen’s two Garden teams in 2009 and 2010 wore teams down late in games through physical play.
“I want my guys fit and strong year-round,” Yameen said. “This is something that’s bugged me for years. You watch a D1 game, it’s refereed completely different. We’ve been hurt by our physicality. I have 15 sheets of D1 games in my office, and there’s an average of five penalties a game. I look at our D2 sheets — 18 penalties. It’s much more physical and much faster in Division 1.”
The D1 landscape
Yameen started scheduling Division 1 teams for non-league games a few years after he took over at Newburyport, and Wile has followed suit in his short time at Triton. Both teams have posted records of .500 or better against Division 1 foes under their current coaches.
Critics of the move to Division 1 will point to the records of Newburyport and Triton in the Division 2 state tournament in recent years. Triton is 1-3 under Wile since his return in 2009. Newburyport is 0-3 in the last three years.
“We want to offer the best possible program for our kids,” Yameen said. “If you don’t play your best and you don’t get the bounces, you don’t win the tournament. It’s a one-game series. I’m not going to take getting bounced from the tournament the last couple of years and change our mind. This is years in the making.”
Last season, there wasn’t much of a gap in talent between the Division 2 North champion Wilmington and the Division 1 North champion Burlington. In fact, Wilmington went 2-0 during the season against Burlington.
But truth be told, the goal for Yameen and Wile is to take teams to the most elite Division 1 tournament — the Super Eight. That is typically a select tournament for the top Catholic schools in the region, such as St. John’s Prep, BC High, Austin Prep, Catholic Memorial and Malden Catholic, among others, with the occasional public school in the mix.
Yameen and Wile both hope that this jump to Division 1 will give local players pause before they leave their local communities to play hockey at private schools. Two other improvements that factor in the coaches’ attempt to keep local talent are the pending Graf Rink locker room renovation project and the Newburyport Bank Tournament.
The coaches started a fundraising effort, which has netted $140,000, all of which will go toward updating the locker rooms so they are on par with all other North Shore rinks. The Newburyport Bank Tournament will now have a Division 1 bracket with Newburyport, Triton, Andover and Matignon. Mansfield also inquired about joining this year, so Yameen is hoping to have a second Division 1 bracket next year.
“I think people love hockey in this community,” Yameen said. “If I didn’t believe we were capable of this, I wouldn’t rush in. I felt this way three years ago. You combine the D1 status with the state-of-the-art locker room facility, playing the best the MIAA has to offer, and a year-round weight-training program, that’s more than you can get anywhere else, in my opinion.”
Newburyport and Triton are now the only two Division 1 public schools north of Wakefield in Massachusetts. Wile does not expect any serious hockey players to be left behind in the move, since both Triton and Newburyport offer junior varsity programs for players who struggle with the transition to Division 1.
Newburyport and Triton have both shown over time they can compete against Division 1 teams in small samplings. The transition for both teams will be eased by the fact that they will keep their 12-game CAL schedules, and must only finish .500 or better in all games to qualify for the D1 tournament.
“We’ll keep the traditional rivalry games our kids grew up with,” Wile said. “It’s easy to be a naysayer, it takes a lot of guts to do what we’re doing. Our kids are running with it. That’s my job as a coach — to do the best I can for the kids. This is unprecedented for this area.”