Darien eager for a chance to erase the bitter memory of last season's final defeat

Darien spent much of last winter as the top-ranked high school boys ice hockey team in the state.

The No. 1 spot, as well as a legitimate shot at a state title, evaporated when the Blue Wave were upset by New Canaan 4-3 in March’s FCIAC championship game, and the CIAC tournaments were canceled three days later with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After putting the drive for a state crown at the heart of their season, Darien was left with a mixture of disappointment and anger, exacerbated by the narrow loss to its arch rival in the league final.

It has this year’s Blue Wave players reevaluating the focus.

“Last year, we spent pretty much our entire preseason and season focusing on our biggest goal which was winning a state championship,” senior co-captain Luke Johnston said. “Then when it got canceled it left us feeling like the whole season was for nothing. That taught us a lesson for this year.”

For the moment, the Blue Wave, along with the rest of the state, is again playing the waiting game, as the CIAC pushed the start of the winter season to Jan. 19.

When, and if, a season does finally start, it will certainly be shorter and will look different, as there is currently a mandate from Gov. Ned Lamont for participants in medium-risk indoor sports such as ice hockey to wear masks while competing.

And as coach Mac Budd pointed out, the season will no longer be a 20-plus-game marathon.

“They’re in a good frame of mind, all things considered,” Budd said of his players. “There’s no point in worrying about things now, we can’t fix (the Jan. 19 start), it’s done and it’s not going to change. What we need to do is look forward to that date and find a way to stay prepared and focused so that when we hit the ice we’re ready to go, because it’s going to be a sprint to the finish.”

With just seven seniors on last year’s team, and the return of several key players, including captains Johnston, Jamison Moore and Sam Erickson, Darien would likely be at or near the top of the rankings again this winter.

The Wave are just hoping to have a chance to prove their lofty status is justified.

“We’re continually thinking about the opportunity to go out and prove that we are the best team in the state,” Moore said. “This year especially, we are very strong. We have 10 or 11 seniors and we’ve been playing together since we were in youth (leagues). This is our last hurrah together so we’re all very motivated to have as much of a season as we possibly can.”

Budd said he’s been involved in several CIAC conversations, and feels the CIAC will do everything in its power to give the players a season.

“I get the sense that the CIAC is going to try and find a way to play the winter season,” Budd said. “That’s what their intent is and if there’s any way possible, they’re going to do it. Of course, there are some things you can’t control, but I’m optimistic as I can be based on that.”

Many of the Blue Wave players have been gearing up for ice hockey during the fall, skating with travel teams or training individually, according to Budd, who said he’s been pleased with the positive vibes during a negative time.

“It’s clear that the kids love playing hockey, and it’s clear that during this very difficult time, it really brings them a lot of happiness,” Budd said. “It gets them back inside of their own world. It’s something they’re familiar with, they’re with their friends and even if there’s things that are different, when you’re on themice, you’re bonding and you’re competing against another team, there’s nothing better.”

The first faceoff of what would be the 2021 winter season would go a long way towards helping Darien put away for good the memory of its last game in 2020.

“That would be our last hockey game for the seniors, and that’s the worst possible way to go out,” Johnston said. “Personally, I think we were the best team in the state last year, and we all thought we’d win a state championship, and this year, I truly think we’re better. We’ve been training even harder and we’re all connected as a team because we all share that anger from what happened last year. We just want to play.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports