Paul Noonan cast an air of confidence at practice Monday afternoon, directing the Milton High varsity boys’ hockey team through drills at Ulin Rink.
His crisp red workout gear did not seem to match his tattered and torn gloves, holes revealing his fingers and palms. Noonan has worn the same gloves for years, for sentimental value and maybe some superstition; his brother, Brian , a high school coach in Illinois, had worn the gloves as a member of the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers in 1994.
A year ago, Noonan guided Milton to the best finish in program history, a trip to the Division 1 state final, in which the Wildcats were denied by Burlington, 6-2.
Fifteen players graduated off that 19-4-3 squad, but Noonan is confident that there are capable players from last year’s junior varsity program ready to step forward and thrive at the varsity level.
“The JV team was pretty strong,” said Noonan, entering his eighth season.
“I knew I had a handful of kids on the JV team that if I didn’t have so many seniors they could have come up and played. I tried to get them in a few games. There was maybe four or five guys who played a half-dozen games so I’m expecting a lot from those kids this year to help us not be so green.”
Senior captain Pat Miller knows that the Wildcats cannot re-create the same chemistry as last year but believes the newcomers will help build a team that has the potential to be just as successful.
“It’s definitely a different atmosphere, but I mean they have to pick up the slack that we lost with the 15 graduating seniors,” said the defenseman.
“They practiced with us last year. It’s really nothing new to them. They just have to work hard.”
Miller, a member of the varsity football team this fall, made the effort to skate two to three times per week in preparation for his senior season.
A pair of forwards, junior Matt Little and sophomore Owen Bligh , have shown a lot of skill at practice, according to their teammates. Bligh’s older brother, Nick, is a freshman forward at Dartmouth College.
Expectations are high for first-line wingers Lloyd Hill , a sophomore, and junior Connor Shea.
For Noonan, the most important trait in a potential Wildcat is being “hockey-smart.’’
“I think if they play the game the right way, it just goes a long way,” said Noonan.
“If you do the little things correct, it kind of takes care of the big things most of the time, so I like the guys who think the game more than anything else.”
Noonan, who lives and breathes hockey, can spot a pure skater when he sees one. That’s exactly how he describes senior captain Brendan Kelley , a center who tallied 8 goals and 16 assists last season.
An experienced leader, Kelley sees a lot of promise this season but realizes that he carries more responsibility as one of the few returnees.
“I think, just lead by example is the best way I can do it,” Kelley said, “ just always try to work my hardest and just show that you can’t expect anything less than working your hardest at all times or else it’s not going to go the way you want it.”
On Saturday night, the Wildcats will host longtime rival Braintree, the teams’ first meeting since Milton prevailed in the Division 1 South semifinals last season, 2-0.
In the offseason, players who did not play fall high school sports participated in club teams, putting in a lot of time on the ice to prepare for this season.
Kelley played on a club team based out of Weymouth with high school foes from Weymouth and Braintree, which he believes helped him improve as a player. It also gives him more confidence going into Saturday’s game against his offseason teammates.
“I know most of those kids on that team, so it will be a good test,” said Kelley. “Hopefully we can pull one out. We have a bunch of great players that can match up with anyone in [the Bay State Conference].
“We just need to execute, so as long as our good players just do what they need to do and everyone else just pitches in and does what they have to do, I think we’ll be fine.”
Junior captain Pat Coffey believes defense will be the team’s strength.
“We’ve got a real good D, like five returning D who played a lot last year,” said the 6-foot-2 blueliner. “That’s definitely our strength, our defense. Our first line is pretty good. I think our defense is going to carry us through.”
Noonan believes the Wildcats are going to surprise teams.
“They’re going to think we’re not as strong as we are,” he said.
“I think it’s a good group. I think we have a lot of good hockey players. We’ll compete. I think we’re going to be there at the end.”