The Keene High boys ice hockey team has been competing in Division 2 since 2003.
This year, the Blackbirds bump back up to Division 1 competition.
The last time they played at the D1 level was when head coach Chris McIntosh was a senior on the team. McIntosh is now in his fourth year as head coach of the program and has led the team to three state championship appearances in a row.
That includes last year’s co-championship, which was awarded to the Blackbirds and St. Thomas High School in Dover when the title game was canceled because of the pandemic.
“If there were going to be co-champions, both very deserving teams to receive that award,” McIntosh said.
The two teams were hoping to battle it out on the ice, as they had been in various other playoff games throughout the years, including the 2018 D2 state championship, where Keene won 3-2 in overtime.
It was a matchup McIntosh said he and the team were really looking forward to.
“It was the dream matchup that unfortunately we never got to play,” McIntosh said.
But the Blackbirds are now looking forward to the upcoming season, and they bring back a handful of upperclassmen from that co-championship team last year and sprinkle in some underclassmen who have potential to make a big difference on the ice.
Senior forwards Zach Mooers and Ethan Russell will serve as captains, alongside senior defenseman Peter Haas and junior Robbie Nowill.
Haas comes into the year injured, but said he hopes to log some ice time later in the season. Until then, he will serve in more of a coach’s role and use his experience to help the young team.
Originally Haas was expected to miss the entire season, but McIntosh said Haas has been practicing and is “trending in the right direction.”
“Adding Peter back into the mix gives us a huge boost on our back end,” McIntosh said.
“It’s been really good to get back out there on the ice with some of my best friends and teammates,” Haas said.
Mooers and Russell will command the first line for the Blackbirds this season, a role that Russell filled last year but is new for Mooers.
“I’ve got big shoes to fill, but I don’t think I have any pressure,” Mooers said. “The coaches don’t put any pressure on me, I just go out and play.
“All-and-all, I’m just trying to be a role model for everybody, not just the freshmen and the sophomores, everybody,” he added.
Joining Mooers on the first line will be his brother, freshman Casey Mooers, who recently broke his ankle and will be out for at least two weeks. Freshman Noah Parrelli has been taking reps on the first line in Casey Mooers’s absence.
Keene also brings back their two senior goalies, Jacob Russell and Taylor Panek.
“We’ve got some good foundational pieces there and then we have some younger kids that we’re really excited about,” McIntosh said.
The young core consists of sophomore forwards Joel Beard, Jonah Murphy and Leo Ballaro, who make up the second line. They played together last year on the team’s third line.
“They’ve taken a huge step,” Russell said. “They look much better than they did last year and I think it’s because they’re more relaxed and they have experience from last year.”
Each of those three sophomores will play a role in making up for the Blackbirds’ lost offense from last season, including last year’s D2 Player of the Year, Jerred Tattersal.
“Incredible athlete,” McIntosh said of the recent graduate. “One of the more talented kids to come through the program. Prolific goal scorer.”
Tattersal scored 110 points in his two years with the program after transferring to Keene from Northfield Mount Hermon, a private school in Northfield, Mass.
The Blackbirds will also be missing Joseph Walsh, Tattersal’s linemate who earned a spot on the All-State second team last year.
“Joe was a tough-nosed grinder,” McIntosh said. “He was always in the right places, created a lot of opportunities for his teammates, and he had scored some of the biggest goals that we’ve had in a long time.”
That included the game-winner in the 2018 D2 semifinals to send Keene to its second consecutive state title appearance.
Then he had the game-winner in that year’s championship game, too.
“Offensively, some big shoes to fill,” McIntosh said.
But McIntosh has faith in his young core to get the job done against tougher opponents this year.
“I think we’re in a position where we can compete this year, but the future of the program is really bright,” McIntosh said. “We’re in a great spot.”
“We’re not rebuilding, we’re just reloading,” he added.
Bumping up to the D1 level is something that has been talked about for a few years now, and the players seem to embrace the underdog role that comes with moving up to a higher division.
“Zach and I, we’ve talked about it since last year,” Russell said, adding that they recognized they will be looked at as underdogs. “People are going to be like, ‘Oh they’re losing their best players,’ but we have other players that people don’t really know about that are stepping up.”
And they certainly aren’t lacking confidence or excitement for competing against upper-division teams.
“We’ve won two state championships, we compete every year, we can make this jump,” Haas said. “And I think now that we’re here, it’s just like any other hockey season. You play the teams you play and you look to compete and win in every game.”
“We’re not trying to change the way we play because there’s just not reason to,” Mooers said.
“It’s just hockey at the end of the day, no matter who we’re playing.”
With pandemic procedures in place, this season will look vastly different. Keene High athletic competitions are on hold until at least Feb. 1, and, even then, there is no guarantee that teams will be allowed to compete in the postseason.
Keene ICE, the Blackbirds’ home rink, has their own procedures in place that will adjust what the atmosphere during games will look like. An atmosphere that McIntosh said was “one of the best atmospheres in high school hockey in New England.”
“The community has really rallied around the team,” McIntosh said. “We fill the place up and it has a good nostalgia to it. So we’ve been excited to bring these Division 1 teams and show them what we’ve been doing over the years.”
Although competitions are on hold, the team has been allowed to practice and McIntosh is just focusing on preparing the team for whenever that opportunity to compete comes along.
“It’s not in our control,” McIntosh said. “You can’t really stress over it. It’s actually something we stress on the team: You take care of what you can control, and you let the other stuff do what it’s going to do.”
And that message has clearly made its mark on the athletes, although it’s not easy.
“Right now, we’re all optimistic,” Mooers said. “We’re trying to have as much fun as we can with the year that’s going on. We’re just lucky that we have this escape.
“Especially as an athlete, not being able to play games when it’s your gateway to peace,” Mooers added. “It’s your getaway from life. But we don’t make the rules and we can’t change anything, so we just have to live with it.”
Right now, the first game the Blackbirds are eligible to compete in is their Feb. 3 matchup against Lebanon High School. Until then, it’s all practices and just trying to stay in shape for whenever the team gets the green light to compete.
In the COVID era, even practices are something these guys don’t take for granted anymore.
“We want to thank all the parents, all the teachers at school, the school board, Superintendent [Robb] Malay, Coach [McIntosh], the coaching staff and the rink workers,” Haas said. “We’re really thankful that we can be on the ice. We’re doing our best every day to work towards getting on the ice for games.”
“The coaches have done an unreal job,” Mooers said. “We wouldn’t be doing this without [them]. Without them, we’re nothing.”