CANTON, Mass. –
Skating up and down the rink at the Canton Sportsplex, the Thayer Academy (Braintree, Mass.)
boys' hockey team moves at a frantic pace. The team flows from one drill to the next, rehearsing its puck work, sharpening its attack with each member challenging one another to get better. Time is precious.
There's an air of professionalism on the ice. It doesn't feel like a high school hockey practice. The players on the team aren't moving like high school hockey players.
For the 60 minutes allotted to the Thayer boys at the rink, the team is certainly harried, yet focused – a common meme for high school hockey teams in Massachusetts. However, it's markedly uncommon for New England prep schools like Thayer to practice at a public rink. They usually have their own. (Tuition at Thayer Academy for the 2011-12 school year was $35,175.)
Each of Thayer's opponents in the Independent School League has their own rink. And because the school lacks a rink, the Tigers practice only three days a week. To compensate, they take to the ice with sharp efficiency.
They can thank their head coach Tony Amonte for that. The retired, five-time NHL all-star and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member is a Thayer Academy alumnus and in his second year as coach of the Tigers.
Only four years removed from his NHL career, Amonte, 41, last played for the Calgary Flames during a stellar 16-year career with the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers. The Hingham, Mass., native currently moonlights for NBC Sports as hockey analyst.
He took over as the head coach at Thayer in hopes of rebuilding the program, and he's still fighting through the growing pains. Thayer went 2-13 in Amonte's first season and is 3-8 so far this year. In the midst of it all, he's been pushing the school to get a new rink on its campus.
"It's a whole new experience for me, working with admissions and financial aid and everything else," Amonte said. "But I think we're headed in the right direction. We're young. We were a young team last year as well. So I think for at least for a couple of years we're going to be on the younger side for our league. And I like what we've done. I like the kids we've brought in. We're poised to have a good future here."
With only four seniors on the team, Amonte has emphasized developing Thayer's program with younger players. Unlike public schools, prep schools like Thayer have influence over the athletes they enroll. Transfers are common. And while recruiting may be a dirty word for most of the high school sports world, it's the name of the game for prep schools in New England.
"It's hard because we are a day school so it's local kids only," Amonte said. "We're fighting with schools that bring kids in and have boarding and things like that so it is a challenge for us. It's been a challenge for Thayer for a long time to get the kids, basically, only south of Boston. So we're trying to get back into that battle competitively and let everybody know we're still a viable school and a great school as far as academics and athletics to go along with. It's always a great mix."
For some, the draw to Thayer has been Amonte himself. Sophomore John Barry, one of the Tigers' younger players, followed Amonte after the former NHL star coached his eighth-grade team.
"I knew right then and there that he was the guy that would bring my game to the next level," Barry said. "He knew everything about the game. He's honestly the best coach I've ever had and he really pushed me to become a better player and he still has till this day."
Despite his celebrity, Amonte has tried his best not to overshadow the work of his players.
"We want the focus to be on Thayer hockey," Amonte said. "That's what we want, Thayer hockey. I'm done and over with and it's time for something else. We're trying to just build a good program here and build it with good people. First and foremost with good kids that want to be here. And we've been able to do that thus far. It hasn't showed up in the standings because we do play in a difficult league. But I know we're headed in the right direction and doing the right things."