Martha’s Vineyard is a Mystery, Alaska, of sorts, albeit one that is separated from society’s mainstream by a little water rather than a lot of land.
The town’s top beer-league players won’t scare the New York Rangers, but there’s an atmosphere of sanctity around the sport of ice hockey that hasn’t been eroded by competing interests or the mainland’s convenience.
“There isn’t a lot going on over here, and until recently there were very few options for kids,” says Sam Sherman, the girls’ varsity coach at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and one of 15 board members presiding over the local arena.
With a winter population ranging between 14,000-15,000, hockey is not merely a pastime on the Vineyard; it is an essential part of surviving the long, stark winters until the first signs of spring hail the return of the first packed tourist ferry of the season to the town docks.
High school sports in general are not the spectator magnet they once were in New England, much less hockey. But things change slowly on this island that is home to many of New England’s elite, including the Kennedy clan.
“For a high school game, you should see this place,” says Kurt Mundt, the local arena’s general manager. “Sometimes you can’t get anybody else in here. The parked cars are lined up and down the road and on the bike path. The place packed, loud. When the Vineyard is playing Hanover, it’s an event here.”
Across The Waters
Ironically, youth hockey teams struggle to bring quality opponents across the water so some coaches take their act on the road, or in this case across the seven-mile swath of Vineyard Sound to play games on mainland Massachusetts.
“Nobody wants to come to the island, that seems to be the biggest thing,” says coach Patrick Jenkinson, who grew up on the island working at his father’s gas station and is now the proprietor.
It’s a different hockey world today, even for the islanders, who find themselves an inconvenient niche in a sports society that can’t get enough convenience.
“I’d love to invite all these guys to come down and play, but getting to the island is such a pain in the – you know. It takes a whole day, so it’s asking a lot,” admits Jenkinson.
For mainland teams, it usually means a weekend with hotel expenses, and hotels on Martha’s Vineyard don’t offer youth-hockey specials even in the slow season. MVYH transports visiting teams from the ferry and sees them back for the ride home.
Luckily, the local figure-skating club snatched up the 30 hours vacated by the teams that went mainland, so the rink actually made money last year.
Martha’s Vineyard Arena is a finished work in progress that began in 1974 with an outdoor rink on the outskirts of Oak Bluffs, across from the high school. It was covered in 1983, thanks in large part to a donation from Fairleigh S. Dickinson (yes, the same guy who founded a university of the same name on the outskirts of New York City). The sides remained open until 1997 when full enclosure enabled year-round programs.
In the past decade, vacationing families have begun packing sticks, skates and pads and putting their children into summer hockey camps.
Hundreds of pucks adorn the studs that give the rink office its structure. They came with Mundt, who was equipment manager for the Philadelphia Flyers for 17 years before Sherman hired him in the summer of 1991 and taught him how to run the Zamboni.
“I remember coming in here with Sam in the summer and saying, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a chore,’ ” recalls Mundt.
That chore quickly became a labor of love, and his rare level of experience recently led to a new tradition on the island – an NHL-style dressing room for the varsity.
Matt Mincone, the boys’ varsity coach, realizes the lavish accommodations are a double-edged sword.
“There are guys that bleed purple, and there are guys that ... are happy to be here,” says Mincone, a sergeant on the Vineyard police force.
“There’s a comfort level that forms. Once they get in that locker room, they feel like they’ve accomplished something.”
Each player’s name is displayed on large placards on the arena wall. One number in particular – the No. 23 – stands out among the placards. It belonged to a former player, Ryan Mone, who died on New Year’s Eve in 1998. It is one of two lives of players lost to tragic car wrecks that are celebrated in the arena. The other is Eric MacLean.
Still, most of the stories coming out of the arena are happy ones, as both Mundt and assistant rink manager Bruce Mahaffey have seen their children benefit from their proximity to the ice.
Mundt’s sons Ryan and Kraig both won state high school championships for the island, and Ryan Mundt became MVYH’s second alumnus to play Division I college hockey, walking onto the University of Notre Dame team.
He is overshadowed by only Willie Levesque, an island native who left “The Rock” as a Peewee and went on to play four years at Northeastern University in Boston before being drafted by the San Jose Sharks.
Ryan Mundt, a 200-point scorer in high school, never left the local youth-hockey program and won a state Bantam title. Recently graduated from college, the 25-year-old now helps Mincone with the varsity squad. He wasn’t around when his father designed an NHL-style locker room for the varsity. The locker rooms of his youth were framed by plywood.
“We made them as nice as we could, painted them up and had carpet,” recalls Ryan Mundt. “It was better than it was for the people before us, but it was nothing like it is now.”
And there are others waiting to follow in Mundt’s and Levesque’s skate tracks, including Matt Flynn who grew up watching the Bruins on TV with his father.
Flynn, now 16, started skating when he was 3 years old and joined a local youth hockey program when he was 5. Now a junior defenseman with collegiate aspirations, he takes his role as varsity captain seriously.
“You’ve got to watch where you go, what you do, at all times because you know people are looking at you,” says Flynn. “ You’ve got to set a good example for other kids, on and off the ice. It kind of puts me on edge a little bit.”
That’s just how life is on “The Rock,” where everybody knows your name.
A Family Project
Hockey life is a little more laissez fare for the girls’ program, which has its own room but without skates and pads hanging up like in the NHL, or the black light and boom box that the boys put to work.
That doesn’t slow down the Fisher twins, Alexa and Zoe, who moved to “The Rock” from New York City. The sisters were new in town when they went public skating and encountered hockey culture in a rude burst of ice spray.
“This little boy who’s now a freshman, I think, gets like a snow stop on us in hockey skates. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to do that,’ ” recalls Alexa Fisher. “Plus, I didn’t like figure skates. We liked hockey skates, so my mother was like, ‘Let’s go for it. We’re in a new place, a new island.’ ”
Their father, who grew up in Millis, Mass., had played hockey, and their mother wound up becoming a goalie in the women’s adult group.
“It’s become, like, a family project,” says Zoe Fisher.
A more seasoned varsity player, Cristina Wiley, spends her Sunday mornings trying to make a skater out of a neighbor’s 6-year-old daughter.
“I’ve been doing that for about the past three years,” says Wiley. “She’s kind of stubborn, though. She’s learning how to skate backwards now. She sometimes won’t get up unless I help her.”
A Colorful Past
From stubborn kids to hockey greats, the Vineyard has seen it all over its 34 years of organized hockey.
In 1994, before the arena’s sidewalls were enclosed, Kurt Mundt’s connections brought over the Winnipeg Jets, who held two practices before packed houses. Bobby Orr, Cam Neely and the Bruins alumni have skated on Vineyard ice, and Carly Simon and James Taylor are said to have performed a benefit that raised $80,000 for the rink without taking a dime for themselves.
But Mundt’s favorite celebrity memoir is Cher’s autograph on the arena sign specially constructed for use in the 2003 Farrelly brothers’ movie “Stuck On You.” It now serves as a wall poster in the arena lobby.
The concern on the part of the older generation is that future generations will lose passion and connection because they benefit from something they didn’t experience building.
On the 25th anniversary of high school hockey on Martha’s Vineyard, there were only 34 boys at tryouts.
“I think that’s going around everywhere,” says senior goalie Alex Minnehan. “Not wanting to put out the money for hockey and the time it takes. Basketball sneakers are a lot cheaper.”
Having arrived in 1995, Mincone learned shortly after he started coaching in 1998 that hockey gets the islanders through the harsh, otherwise long and quiet winters. And the high school varsity boys’ team happens to be the cultural epicenter of island entertainment.
“The buzz might be a little dimmer some years,” he says, “but there’s always a buzz.”