- HNIB News
Many challenges, but few wins for O’Bryant
By Samuel Evers GLOBE CORRESPONDENT FEBRUARY 05, 2016
It’s 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon at Matthews Arena in Boston, where the winless O’Bryant Tigers are set to take on the Amesbury Indians.
One by one, kids come trickling into the rink, fresh off bus and train rides from all different parts of the city.
The players, some over six feet tall, some under five feet, all enter with the light-hearted approach necessary for a hockey team that hasn’t won a game in over four years.
With a 5:30 puck drop fast approaching, coach Joe Natola, a Roslindale native in his 11th season coaching this team, gets a text from one of the two upperclassmen on his roster.
“Here’s a good example of how this team is,” said Natola, with mostly patience in his tone. “This kid Evan, he’s running late. This is how most of them are.”
“I had to read them the riot act after one game about getting in touch with me,” continued the coach, who teaches graphic art at Madison Park during the day. “Today, I’ve been getting texts from a lot of the kids, saying ‘I’m going to be a little late.’ ”
Such is life for Natola and his patchwork group of city kids, many of whom are trying out hockey for the first time.
While the jerseys read O’Bryant, many of them attend various other Boston public schools because the places they attend don’t have a hockey team.
In all, Natola’s roster is made of 21 kids from 17 different schools. There are no seniors and only two juniors. The rest of team is comprised of underclassmen, five of whom are in either the seventh or eighth grade.
There are a few middle schoolers on the team every year. Before the city ruled that every girl interested in hockey was to play for Latin Academy four years ago, Natola used to have girls on the team, too.
The equipment — the jerseys, skates, helmets and pads — were largely provided by a donation that Natola applied for from the NHLPA to help inner-city kids play hockey.
“There is a sprinkling of players, one from Brighton High, one from West Roxbury. There’s another kid from Fenway,” said Natola. “The kid who plays from Fenway — we normally practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but he can only come to the Tuesday practice because he doesn’t get out until 3:30.”
A trio of seventh graders from Dorchester — Griffin Mikalauskis, Luke Maffeo, and Michael Magnum — are on the team, and got the start against Amesbury, a team with 13 upperclassmen.
Those three, who stand at 4-8, 5-5 and 5-0, respectively, are known as “the rat line,” a nickname given by Natola and Chris Tomkins, the assistant coach. They enter and exit the ice together.
After 15 minutes of play, the Indians had scored seven times on O’Bryant. The Tigers were well on their way to loss No. 15 of the season.
“We’ve been saying for four years, ‘we’re going to be good next year, we’re going to be good next year,’ it’s always seems to be a rebuilding year,” said Tomkins, laughing. “We’ve had some individual talent throughout. This one kid a few years ago, we called him Ace, he could fly, but his family moved to Waltham.”
GPA requirements, limited practice time, and players deciding to play elsewhere, are among the hurdles Natola and Tomkins face in trying to assemble their team.
Some of their best players in the past, said Natola, have been forced off the team because of academic ineligibility.
Tomkins, a math teacher at O’Bryant and a native of West Roxbury, joined the team as an assistant during the 2012-2013 season. He has yet to see a victory.
“The first practice I ever went to was a Saturday morning practice. I showed up, and saw this kid Daquan, our goalie, and he had his throat protector on backwards, it was choking the kid,” said Tomkins. “When I saw that, I realized where the team was. I was expecting to teach kids how to do power-plays, how to run breakaways, and I walked in, and kids didn’t know how to put their equipment on. Some of them had never seen hockey equipment before.”
Ironically, Daquan Blevins turned into one of their better players, and fell in love with hockey. Tomkins helped him join a men’s league after he graduated in 2014 because he wanted to keep playing.
The last win for the Tigers? The details come easy for Natola.
“Our last win was January 1st, 2012. We beat Mystic Valley,” said Natola. “It was 6-4. We were losing going into the third period and kids came back and scored four goals in the third. They dug down deep and played really well and we ended up winning. The kids felt great about themselves.”
Even in defeat, which comes in abundance, the positive culture and camaraderie cliches are obvious with this team.
Players’ spirits and heads were as high before the game against Amesbury as they were after a seven-goal first period deficit. The puck rarely left the Tigers own zone in those 15 minutes, and goalie Tyler Allen was bombarded with more shots than any goalie could have handled.
In watching the Tiger’s effort, the coaches enthusiasm, and the strong supporting cast of family that showed up to watch the game, it seems like the feeling of accomplishment comes not from wins, but from fielding a team and getting to play organized hockey.
“I love playing for [Coach Natola]. He’s got lots of patience. We haven’t won in three years probably, which obviously sucks. But it’s still fun,” said Allen, a junior at Brighton High. “I wouldn’t want to be playing anywhere else, I mean, there really isn’t anywhere else to play.’”
Amesbury ended up getting six goals more by Allen, for a final score of 13-0.
Earlier in the season, O’Bryant came close to a win against New Bedford, a 4-3 outcome in favor of the Whalers, who pulled ahead on a goal with six minutes left in the game.
“Even after New Bedford scored the go-ahead goal, they didn’t give up. They were still skating hard the rest of the way,” said Natola. “We pulled the goalie, and for that last 1:30 of the game, we kept shooting, shooting, shooting.”
In a rematch a few weeks later, the Tigers lost another close one, 3-1, in a game both coaches thought might have been the game they finally won.
“A lot of the time [the kids] are more positive than we are after games,” said Tomkins, with a smile. “I don’t want to say they are used to it, but I don’t know. When we lost to New Bedford the first time, I think I was more upset than the kids.”
“Me too,” said Natola.
Undeterred, O’Bryant will march on through its final five games against teams they likely won’t be able to beat.
The 2015-16 season has been marked another rebuilding season, with this last stretch of games serving as practice for next year, because, as far as the team is concerned, next year might be the Tigers’ year.
“Our last five games in this season are against good teams, it’ll be tough,” said Allen. “But I think we can win one by next year. I think we’ll definitely win one.”