Less than two years ago, the Hudson Catholic hockey program had reached the unthinkable pinnacle, namely winning the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title - the first such championship for a Hudson County hockey team.
A lot has happened since that magical season. The head coach, Cory Robinson, resigned. Most of those championship players have since graduated and moved on. Simply put, the Hawks are not the same as they once were.
The new coach is first-year head coach Frank McGady, the man who dutifully served as an assistant coach to Robinson for nine seasons and was promoted to take the reins when Robinson departed.
McGady knew that he was not walking into the perfect situation, replacing one of the most successful coaches in New Jersey hockey history.
"It's always tough when you follow a coach like Cory Robinson," McGady said. "I knew that there would be a transition. I was always able to be the disciplinarian because of my years of being a teacher in the classroom. But I found that I'm the one who has to make the tough decisions now. I never had to do that. I have to decide who plays and who gets benched. But honestly, it hasn't been that bad."
Except the results. The Hawks are no longer the state's premier hockey team. They no longer reside among the elite. They own a 3-6-1 record after participating in the Secaucus Mayor's Cup Tournament last weekend, where the Hawks finished a promising third among a very competitive field.
"All of our losses have come to very good competition," McGady said. "I think we've been holding our own in a very tough division. We had a one-goal loss to St. John Vianney (the state's No. 1 ranked team) and had two losses to Brick (the No. 2 ranked team). We tied St. Joseph's of Metuchen. So it hasn't been that bad."
There's another reason for McGady's optimism. The Hawks do not have a single senior on the roster. The "rebuilding" term is not one that is in the Hawks' vocabulary, but the administration at Hudson Catholic, namely Principal Brother Timothy Ahern and Athletic Director Chipper Benway, have given McGady some leeway with taking over the program.
"There's no pressure to win right away," McGady said. "They know the situation and have been very supportive. I don't feel like we have to win right away."
What also enthuses McGady is the upbeat approach the players are taking.
"They're a great team with a lot of heart, desire and enthusiasm," McGady said. "They work hard and hustle all the time. How could any coach not be happy with that? I'm so proud with the way they've all held up."
The Hawks have been especially under the gun since their premier player, sophomore Danny Galella, had surgery on both knees Dec. 28. It is still not known how long Galella will be out of action.
Junior forward Peter Hand has stepped up big in Galella's absence and earned All-Tournament honors in the Mayor's Cup.
"He's become a leader on the team and he's very steady," McGady said.
Junior forward Skylar Cauceglia has also emerged as a go-to player.
"He steadies the play for us and takes the role as being the assistant captain very seriously," McGady said.
Another key player has been sophomore forward Christian Dolezal, who is an exchange student from Vienna, Austria. McGady has also credited the defense, spearheaded by sophomore defenseman and captain Rick Tauber and sophomore goaltender A.J. Drago.
"Better things are yet to come," McGady said. "We're showing that we can play with the big teams and skate with them. Our kids can look at the way we played in this tournament and it will have to build confidence."
McGady said that the memories of the 2000 Tournament of Champions title will never fade.
"I will never forget that," McGady said. "It was a special year and there was nothing like it. But we proved that it was possible and it's something that we can do sometime down the road. Maybe not this year, but we can definitely do it down the road. The kids are making it fun for me, because they're working hard and playing hard. I love it."
Now, if only the Hawks could get McGady a few more wins.
St. John Vianney won the fourth annual Secaucus Mayor's Cup Tournament, which was organized by former Hudson Catholic coach Robinson, who is the director of the Secaucus Ice Rink and Secaucus' youth hockey organization.
Robinson credited the support of Mayor Dennis Elwell and Councilman Fred Constantino to allow the tournament to continue through the years. - Jim Hague