By Dwayne Oxley
This is a time of year with many traditions – Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving Day Football, Class Reunions, Christmas, New Year’s and all other family and friend gatherings; however, this year, one local tradition will be missing. The Saugus High Boys Hockey Sachems, a very proud, successful and respected program, has played its last game as a stand-alone team. Saugus High hockey had its inaugural season back in 1946. The team competed in the North Shore Hockey League and later the Northeastern conference, and was a perennial contender for those league titles. Saugus was a Division 1 team for a little more than half of its history, and there was no separation of public and private schools come tournament time. Teams had to win 75% of their games back then, and Saugus qualified for many years. Division classifications were transformed, and Saugus and the other Northeastern Conference teams began competing in Division 2. Saugus won State Championship titles in 1999, 2003 and 2004 with former SHS players coaching those championship teams. More recently, the team had some deep tournament runs in 2011, 2012 and 2017. This past season, after a five-year hiatus, the Hockey Sachems qualified for the state tournament, but an undermanned squad valiantly bowed out in a first round 2OT loss. Saugus has always been known as a hockey town and its teams were characterized by their hard work and determination. So why will there be no Saugus High Boys Varsity Hockey Team this year?
Here are my thoughts on this sad topic. I have had an insider’s view for many years: a 1982 graduate of SHS, hockey Captain, Hall of Fame Inductee and an Assistant Coach for the past six years. I had also coached an independent Middle School team (there was no school funding available) for five years overlapping my first year as a varsity assistant coach. Prior to that, I had coached Saugus Youth Hockey for over 20 years, working closely with the varsity coaches to prepare players to play at that level.
First, the youth hockey model in Massachusetts is broken. For many years, Saugus had hundreds of kids playing Saugus Youth Hockey. Years ago, we had intramural town hockey and travel team town hockey. The intramural league gradually faded away, but for many years Saugus had multiple (three to five) travel teams at each age group. The proliferation of “select” hockey was the end of many youth town hockey programs. Once a league for the truly “select” players, it became a big business where parents can shop their children around until they find a team where they would get more ice-time as a player on one of the top two lines. Select hockey became a very watered-down product over the years, and while some do offer excellent coaching, many have less than stellar coaching staffs. Many parents believe they need to have their children in these select programs to keep pace with other players in the children’s age group, and to keep that Division 1 college scholarship dream alive. As players moved from team to team each new year, town teams dwindled, and Saugus Youth Hockey was a victim. SYH had been a feeder to the high school program. In years past, youth hockey players grew up wanting to play for Saugus High – they weren’t thinking about college scholarships. If you excelled in high school, then you set your sights on the possibility of playing college hockey (and many from Saugus High have played at the collegiate level). Because we have no local youth program and players are constantly changing teams, there is no sense of town or school pride, and certainly no loyalty to the town or Saugus High.
This leads to the second factor impacting the demise of SHS Boys varsity hockey. It is the state of our public school system in Saugus. The graduating class of 1982 was roughly 370 students; the graduating class in 2012 was 175 students, and I believe the graduating class this past year was around 170. The town census was 24,746 in 1980 and was 28,619 in 2020 – so the town is growing, but we have far fewer students attending our high school. For the several years that I was coaching the Saugus Middle School team, I was tracking where players went to high school. More than half (almost 65%) of those 80-plus middle school players left the school system for private-Catholic schools. Hockey parents can be a fanatical group – more so than other sports. Perhaps it is because of the cost, the travel and less than ideal hours of games and practice; and many are looking for a return on their investment. Division 1 college hockey scholarships are a big carrot for players and parents, and many move their children to private/catholic high schools simply for the exposure of playing for a Division 1 high school program. Many parents would tell me it was for academic reasons, and in some cases, it may have been, but many were for purely hockey reasons. Unfortunately, because the school system is not well regarded, it was a convenient reason to justify their decisions. The school’s perception may be worse than reality, but it is hard to argue with sub-par standardized test scores at most age levels. While test scores may not be fully indicative of a school system’s success, it is consistent, comparative data available to parents.
We have a beautiful new school with all the modern technology, but that alone is not enough of a selling point for parents. In addition to the academics, parents reference a lack or order and discipline. Through stories from teachers within the Middle School/High School, many students seem to lack basic respect for teachers and authority figures, and there seems to be little to no consequences for students who break rules and are disruptive to others. I have seen this flow over to sports as well. All of the above make it easy for parents to decide to opt for a private school education if they have the means to do so. I am forever grateful for the education I received from the Saugus school system. I can name every teacher I had in every grade – because they all had a positive impact on my life. I hope we can make changes to keep more students in our school system, and that those students are afforded the opportunity for a successful and rewarding high school experience.
For now, the remaining hockey players at Saugus High will join forces with Peabody High (Peabody did not have a team last year), and the two schools will compete as a Co-op team in the Northeastern Conference this season. A Co-op is a two to three year commitment, so there may be an opportunity down the road for SHS to have its own Boys Varsity Hockey team again. Best wishes to the new Co-op team for much success. Finally, thanks to all former SHS Sachems Hockey players and coaches for 76 years of memorable high school hockey.