Have a Little Faith! Clifton Honors Tom Danko After 374 Wins, 32 Years Behind the Bench

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LITTLE FALLS, NJ — After 32 years, five Passaic County titles, three Handchen Cups, one Earl Hoerner Cup and that all too memorable NJSIAA title in 2001, it went down exactly as you might expect.

You just have to have a little Faith.

On a night two dozen former Clifton ice hockey players and dignitaries honored Tom Danko for the efforts of three-plus decades behind the bench, Faith Poplawski delivered not one, but two game-tying goals — the last coming with 2:04 remaining in regulation — as the Mustangs skated to a 4-4 tie with Woodbridge-Colonia-Iselin Kennedy at Floyd Hall Arena Friday night in Montclair.

Danko, the epitome of developing inner-city ice hockey as a coach in New Jersey, was treated to a rousing reception as alumni both near and far came out in droves to honour him.

“He came in, brought players in, his leadership, his kids, and taught them what it needed to take and you don’t see that very often — it’s their way or the only way — but Tom came in at a young age and really listened, really directed,” Darren Groh, a member of the immortal 1989 Clifton team that won 25 straight games, said. 

Down by one in the waning moments of the third period, Faith Pawlawski tied the game twice as Clifton rallied twice in the third period to pull out the tie en route to a 4-4 tie.

The result was a fitting end to a career that began in 1987, a career that concluded with 374-career wins 17 miles west of Manhattan.

“It was long, but enjoyable — those are the moments I’ll take with me,” Danko, 374-312-64, all-time, said. “All of those wins, all of those losses, every year we had a memory. We won 25 straight games the second year I was coaching — those 25 straight games — it was an unknown record at the time.”

Chris Ferguson and Dante Amato staked Woodbridge to a 2-0 lead, but James Troller made it 2-1 with 3:12 remaining in the second period.

Just six seconds off the ensuing faceoff, Amato took the draw and proceeded to skate in and make it a 3-1 game mere moments later, but Clifton would not go down without a fight — not on this night.

Vin Pietrella made it 3-2 just 1:12 into the third period, but Woodbridge answered again and made it 4-3 when Anthony Scalfani hit with 6:05 remaining in regulation. 

With her team down and in need of another lift, Poplawski — a freshman — provided the spark yet again.

“We were down, but a nice setup, just had to keep going after the puck,” Poplawski said. “A nice goal at the end to tie the game — we all worked hard.

“We were down but we don’t give up,” Poplawski said. “We worked hard. Even though we were down we still didn’t give up, just had the motivation — we knew we could do it.”

More than 30 former Clifton players, assistant coaches and alumni were on hand to witness the comeback late in third period, including a handful of players who were a part of the 2001 NJSIAA state championship team and the 1989 team that won 25 straight in a single season — the only public school in state history to accomplish the feat.

“We were down by two goals but came back in the last period, two minutes left,” Pietrella, who finished with a goal and two assists, said. “Quitting is never in our vocabulary. We always stay strong. We started off the season a little slow, but we’re going to keep going strong.”

Related: Clifton Captures Bayonne Holiday Tournament

Juri Dubas finished with 29 saves for Clifton, which earns a point to stand 0-4-1 in the Big North Conference. Lucas Temple had 19 stops for Woodbridge (1-3-1).

“I think we started off a little slow, picked it up, but fell apart,” Woodbridge senior Dante Amato, who finished with two goals and an assist, said. “Our key guys got major penalties. Just have to pick the guys up in the room. We’ve had trouble in the past with penalties, just have to get some more discipline at this point — it’s a mental thing. We’ve got the skill on the ice we  just have to pick it up outside the box.”

At the end of the tilt, players past and present made their way on to the ice to honor Danko, who guided Clifton to a 2-1 triumph over Bayonne in the state final at Continental Airlines Arena in 2001.

Faith Poplawski scored twice in the third period, tying the game each time. Her second goal, with 2:05 remaining in regulation, lifted Clifton to a 4-4 tie with Woodbridge-Colonia-Iselin Kennedy at Floy Hall Arena in Montclair on Dec. 13, 2019. (HockeyClan)

“No one took Clifton serious the early years I was coaching,” Danko said. “It means a lot to see everyone come back because Clifton isn’t really a hockey town. We don’t have a lot of travel players, but that helped. It was more teaching, more instruction, how to be a player and how to learn the game. That was always very important to me.”

Groh, currently the principal at Chatham, went on to coaching stints at Montclair, Bayonne, Montclair Kimberley and Nutley high school. 

“Coach Danko came in that season and galvanized us as a team,” Groh,  referencing the memorable 1989 squad, said. “We won the Handchen Cup, beat St. Joseph-Metuchen, 8-1, then beat Lawrence in the first round of the state tournament. Then we met Steve Hipple, First Team All-State starting goalie from Toms River North, outshot them 42-20, but lost 4-2 with an empty-net goal the last game of the season. We were 24-0, won the first round of the state tournament and finished 25-1. It was the only loss we had.

“Danko’s leadership, it never took away from the great season we had,” Groh said. “All in one season. From start to finish he kept us grounded.” 

“The team never quit,” first-year Clifton coach Mike Santosuosso said. “They kept fighting. They knew they could compete so they never gave up. Faith had a huge game for us. Vinny had a huge game for us — he always has a huge game for us even though it may not show up on the scoresheet — they work hard out there. Great effort. Great game. Obviously would have liked to come away with a win there, but steps in the right direction we can build off of.”   

Woodbridge accounted for 31 minutes in penalties, surrendering a pair of power play goals, something coach Joe Rotella is looking to rectify immediately.

“I’ve seen what I want to see but the problem is this team is still stuck in a shell,” Rotella said. “They’re very immature. We should have locked that game down. Mental breakowns. Dangerous situations. We had some nice movement tonight, nothing against Clifton, but this team plays down to other team’s levels. We didn’t show up. Discipline — a long way to go.”

Related: Tom Danko, Robin Williams, Joe Piscopo SNL Video

(L-R) John Gulardo, Darren Groh, Tom Danko, Marlon Jacques. (HockeyClan)

Chris Ferguson also scored for Woodbridge-Colonia-Iselin Kennedy, which will take on South Brunswick on Dec. 16. 

Clifton will look to secure its first win of 2019-20 against Paramus Catholic on Dec. 15.

(L-R) Anthony Yelocvich, Emil Rascher, Ralph Cinque. (HockeyClan)


1-0 W Chris Ferguson (Dante Amato, Nick Manente) 4:08-1st

2-0 W Dante Amato (Anthony Sclafani) 10:09-2nd

2-1 C James Troller (Vin Pietrella) 3:12-2nd PPG

3-1 W Dante Amato (Nate Manente) 3:06-2nd

3-2 C Vin Pietrella (Vlad Ciberej) 13:48-3rd

3-3 C Faith Poplawski (Vlad Ciberej, Vin Pietrella) 10:50-3rd PPG

4-3 W Anthony Sclafani (unassisted) 6:05-3rd

4-4 C Faith Poplawski (unassisted) 2:04-3rd

Shots: 33-23 Woodbridge


Written by John Christian Hageny  @JCCSPORTS 

Special to HockeyClan


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