About The Game
The year was 1989... it doesn't seem that long ago, but it was perhaps a simpler time than today. There was no internet, really no cellular phones - the information age had not yet taken hold. But one piece of information that did make its way through the grapevine in the late winter of 1989 was that the New Jersey High School Ice Hockey State Finals were being cancelled before they would ever be played.
It has since been discussed that this sort of thing would never happen today... pressure from parents, students, alumni, even attorneys for that matter would likely force a different outcome. The power of the information age would rally to the players’ sides - emails and text messages would be flooding cell phones and inboxes within minutes. It is likely that a solution would be sought, agreements would be made and the game would be played at another time when the teams could be equally prepared and just do it. Perhaps we should have taken a famous phrase from Nike on that one... but in 1989 nobody did that.
The State's #1 ranked hockey team, St. Joseph Regional of Montvale had navigated itself to the state finals to play against the State’s #2 ranked hockey team, The Delbarton School of Morristown. The build-up was epic for the times - both teams were dominant all year long against every opponent they faced and the two high school hockey powerhouses were getting ink every week in various newspapers during a time when high school hockey just didn't get that kind of coverage south of Montreal, Minnesota or Boston. This was New Jersey, after all. But somehow two teams of dedicated young men had captivated a state full of hockey fans for an entire season. Both teams had multiple All-State players, future collegiate players, junior hockey players. Each of them even had an NHL draftee. It was all about to come to a head with a feverish pitch on a Saturday night at Mennen Arena in Morristown, New Jersey.
The ending of this epic story would not be written on the ice, however, but by the nameless, faceless NJSIAA officials with no personal stake in the game, and, evidently, no understanding of the heart of a champion. A measles epidemic struck several schools in the state, infecting teachers and students, and even a player, at Delbarton. On the eve of the most anticipated game in New Jersey High School hockey history, the game was cancelled. That was it - no game, not now, not next week, not next month... never. It was over and that was that. There were no discussions, no meeting, no conference calls that we were aware of to try and figure out another way. If there were, those involved must not have tried hard enough. The State would later brand both schools "Co-Champions" and all the players would have to take this medicine and move on. For many it was an abrupt end to stellar high school careers and the chance to be State Champions. For all, it was a game they never quite got over.
Forget the amount of preparation and hard work by the athletes that goes into a hockey season to compete at those levels, the amount of time, effort and money given up by the working parents and coaches to create these opportunities for their kids. Having practices at 5:00 a.m. in the freezing cold before school ever began, traveling to other states, and even other countries, to play more decorated teams in order to train harder and, make your team that much better and reach the Championship game. To be told through “a grapevine” that, after everything we had worked for, we would not get to put ourselves to the final test, was simply unbelievable. Senior forward, Craig Gottschall pretty much summed it up for the SJR crew after he heard the news and uttered the famous words, “I’d rather lose than never have an opportunity to play”. Those same sentiments were echoed by Delbarton coach Alec Walsh who said, “It would have been better to have played the game and lost, than to have never played the game.” More than 40 hockey players were dealt a severely disappointing blow that left them intensely unfulfilled. It was 1989... and the Greatest Game Never Played was born.
21 years later - these same two teams are going to lace up the skates one more time and play against each other, all in the name of Charity. This game won't be as much to settle old scores as it will be to get the teams together for a weekend event that will be remembered for a lifetime. An event to benefit and thank so many people beyond just the game itself and an opportunity for those players to relive some old glory of a time that doesn't seem that long ago. "Co-Champions" was never a term that sat well with either team and on April 3, 2010 - we will get an answer of sorts for a cause that is much greater than the game itself, but not just any game... "The Greatest Game Never Played".