LAKE PLACID, NY — Man does not make the mountain — the mountain makes the man.
The Northern Highlands high school hockey team, in search of inspiration and fortitude, made the four-hour trek north to Lake Placid, site of the memorable U.S. Men’s Olympic Gold Medal-winning triumph in 1980, for a week of team building before the start of the 2019-20 season.
Nestled in the sleepy little village deep in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, the Allendale, New Jersey school visited the Lake Placid Olympic Center and Herb Brooks Arena, hitting the ice several times while taking in the sights and sounds on top of the world together as a team.
“Back in a meeting over the summer with my head coach, Jason Beswick, and my co-captain, Aidan Connolly, we decided that a team trip would be ideal in bringing our team together as one — and the best place for this was Lake Placid,” Northern Highlands team captain Jack Sparago said. “With it being too early to play any games, this would be a great opportunity to focus completely on hockey for three days with no distractions. In a way this was our training camp before a very difficult preseason schedule of Don Bosco, Delbarton, Ramapo, Glen Rock and Randolph.”
“We went on the ice four times up there: once on the 1980 rink, twice on the 1932 rink and once on the USA rink,” Sparago said. “This was a great opportunity to practice on such an ideal piece of American Hockey history.
“The ice sessions showed great amounts of progress and some potential line combinations we were able to build chemistry as the days went on. It also allowed all of us to push each other through the tough times and to encourage each other. The team vibe around it… allowed everyone to get a feel for each other and grow the team’s mood. There was never a dull moment and everyone was always smiling and having fun. The ice sessions allowed us as a team to get back into everything.”
Northern Highlands, which shut out Randolph, 1-0, in the NJSIAA Public B championship for its first state title in school history at Prudential Center two years ago, is made up of student-athletes from Allendale, Ho-Ho-Kus, Saddle River and Upper Saddle River. The Bergen County team went 6-2-2 within the Big North Conference last season, earning victories over Vernon and Madison in the state tournament before falling to Chatham in the semifinals.
Inspired by the team’s rise to prominence and the motivation to keep the drive alive by his two team captains, head coach Jason Beswick seized the opportunity to continue to build team chemistry. Together, the Highlanders traveled, skated and summited the High Peaks engaging in several team-building activities including a rigorous mountain climb, obstacle course and zip line.
“The idea for the team-building training camp came from our two senior captains Jack Sparago and Aidan Connolly,” Beswick, in his 17th season as coach, said.
“They want to make this season a huge success being their senior season. It was a great opportunity for the entire team to get to know each other better off the ice and I believe will lead to another successful season on the ice.”
With the graduation of standouts Sean Vlasich and Mark Cinotti as well as steady netminder John Werber in between the pipes, Northern Highlands will be leaning on the senior leadership of Sparago and Connolly in 2019-20, which kicks off on Nov. 29.
“This year we have a really young team with a lot of depth,” said Connolly, who recorded four goals and 11 assists as a rearguard last season. “The Lake Placid trip was a really great experience for our players. It was good for us to take a trip so we could work on our skills in a more isolated environment. Coach Beswick did a really nice job as usual showing the younger guys what Northern Highlands hockey is all about. The trip was also really good for our older guys to work on leadership skills.
“We were put in a lot of difficult situations and it was key the juniors and seniors stepped up to help the freshmen and sophomores,” Connolly said. “We were tested on our ability to work together in a smart way. An example of this was my groups first test: we were given a large spider net and we had to get everyone through. It was tough but with the right mindset we got it on our second try. Another example we had to balance a plank of wood on top of a log which we found to be very difficult, but leaders throughout the team stepped up and we got it done — we became a family by the end of it.”
“The most important aspect of this trip was what we did the last day, Friday, after our early morning skate,” said Sparago, who tallied 16 goals and 27 points last season.
“We had a 5:50 a.m. wake up call for a 6:45 a.m. skate. After the skate, everyone was tired wanting to rest but we still had a team building exercise outside. It was a very cold day — about 17 degrees and snowing. A lot of the boys were complaining and didn’t want to do it. However, once we started to do the exercises everyone was glad we did it. Some included rope courses, special mazes and a climbing wall.
“The most important one was climbing over the wall,” Sparago said. “This was a plain wall about 15-feet high — there was nothing to grab on to or help climb it. This meant we had to boost and pull each other up and over. This was very fun and a great overall atmosphere. “The Great Experience Outdoors” is known for team-building exercises, helping teams like the New York Rangers and the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team.”
“Overall, this trip was ideal in building team relationships with our teammates and growing team chemistry,” Sparago added. “I don’t think one person doesn’t realize we have something special this year and this trip was a great tone-setter for the entire season. Personally, after this trip, I feel like this is the closest team I have ever been on.”
Northern Highlands opens its season on Nov. 29 against Suffern at the Sport-o-Rama in Monsey, NY before returning to New Jersey for a game against St. Peter’s Prep at Prudential Center in Newark on Nov. 30. Northern Highlands will host Paramus in a well-deserved homecoming on Dec. 5.
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Photos courtesy of Caryn Beswick
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