Matt McCarthy was gone like that. The circumstances of his untimely and tragic passing are now well-known in local circles. The former Pentucket hockey captain collapsed on the ice after hockey practice in December never to be revived.
But friends and family, coaches and teachers, teammates and competitors, acquaintances and those who only knew him by reputation have done much to ensure McCarthy's legacy at Pentucket and in the Cape Ann League will never be forgotten.
Most recently, McCarthy was posthumously nominated and awarded the MIAA Sportsmanship Award for Cape Ann League, given annually by the Boston Bruins and the MIAA to an individual who best exemplifies the highest standards of fair play and sportsmanship in high school ice hockey. His brothers Ryan and Nate will be handed the award at a ceremony in the first intermission of the Bruins game tomorrow night versus the Florida Panthers, and his family will be in attendance for the game.
"We were surprised for obvious reasons and happy," said Jola McCarthy, Matt's mother. "We were happy that he was nominated for this award and that he's receiving it. He was always friends with players in the CAL whether he played against them or with them, and it's a great honor for him."
Pentucket coach Bill Burns said he had to write an essay to nominate Matt expressing the leadership qualities he displayed on and off the ice.
"We had to write a bit of an essay on Matt expressing his leadership abilities, what a good school citizen he was and such a mentor to young players," Burns said. "The fact that he was a captain and knew exactly what that term meant. He led on and off the ice, was involved in the school community and the community of Merrimac.
"He was a unique individual with leadership beyond his years," Burns said. "He's done so many things for other players. We were blessed to have him in our locker room and fortunate enough to have him chosen for this award."
Pentucket athletic director Dan Thornton said McCarthy, who was a hard-nosed physical player, would have gotten a kick out of being honored with a sportsmanship award.
"This thing made me smile because it's a nice award that the MIAA puts on with the Bruins in terms of sportsmanship," Thornton said. "Matt was such a physical style of player — we reflected on it, Bill (Burns) and I — he was so physical and fierce, and he would get a big kick of getting a sportsmanship award. He's going to be smiling down on us Thursday saying, 'I got this on my resume.'"
Many other measures have been taken up around Pentucket High School and by McCarthy's classmates and friends. Both the girls and boys basketball teams dedicated their season in McCarthy's honor and wore warm-up shirts with McCarthy's name and number on the back. In the upcoming spring sports season both the boys lacrosse team and baseball team will wear stickers on their helmets with his number, and the softball team plans to wear an honorary patch with his initials "MJM" on their game jerseys.
There is a group of students who have been meeting periodically to discus ideas to make something in his honor at Pentucket. One idea was to plant a tree, but the group decided that since Matt was not a flower fan that would not be the best plan. Another idea was to build a stairway from his parking space at the high school — which no one has parked in since his passing — up to Farm Lane since there are none, and using hockey sticks in place of hand rails.
But what has really continued to carry McCarthy's legacy is the scholarship foundation his parents Jim and Jola McCarthy help set up in his name, which will eventually award $1,000 to one student in each school in the CAL that is actively involved in their high school community, whether it be sports, the performing arts, community service or some other activity.
The family has set up a charity hockey game on April 11 at 2 p.m. at Veteran's Rink in Haverhill, to be played by the friends and coaches of Matt versus Boston Bruins legends like Terry O'Reilly, Andy Brickley, Bob Sweeney and Rick Middleton. There are 1,500 tickets available, and many students have already committed. The Bruins alumni will also host a clinic for 60 youth players in the area. Later in the day, after the hockey events, there will be a dinner at Michael's Function Hall in Haverhill, where there will also be several auctions.
"There has really been a great outpouring from the community," Thorton said. "We've been meeting with the McCarthys at the high school, and there has been great support from the community whether people have wanted to put in an ad or make a donation. One dad I recently spoke with at a youth hockey practice came up to me and said his son asked for donations to the McCarthy' foundation for his birthday instead of presents. They raised a couple hundred dollars."
Jola McCarthy has been working to spin something positive out of the December tragedy.
"Matt was really into sports and enjoyed his high school years playing hockey," said Jola, who added the concept behind the scholarship was a no-brainer. "The CAL is what he really enjoyed, and it's really good hockey. He knew a lot of people playing those leagues and rather than just give the money to one student at Pentucket, we wanted to open (the scholarship fund) up to a lot of kids that need help in these schools. Hopefully, we will give the money to a young man or woman from each school that will take Matt's memory with them."