By Desirée Keegan
Mark Devlin was at his son Ryan’s high school graduation ceremony last month and couldn’t believe his ears. As Ward Melville High School’s valedictorian took to the podium, he referenced three state championship teams from the past school year — the field hockey, boys lacrosse and ice hockey teams.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” the former five-year president and general manager of the Ward Melville Ice Hockey Club said, laughing. “They’ve never recognized our hockey club at the high school, and there was a huge roar up in the stands, so it was really cool. Our town is known for lacrosse and now the word is getting out about the hockey team.”
Although Devlin, who was also the varsity head coach last year, has since stepped down as president of the club, the soon-to-be varsity assistant coach said it has come a long way from when he took over five years ago, creating a board and turning the 30-year-old organization into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The varsity team was 1-19 when his son first entered the youth league, and last year, the Patriots became the first team in the Suffolk County High School Ice Hockey League to go undefeated. They also took home the club’s first state championship, which qualified the team for its first national showing.
“This year we told a very different story,” recent graduate and co-captain Zachary Boritz said. “We found out after our last game that we were the first team to go undefeated and I was in shock, I couldn’t believe it. And to make it to states and then to nationals was a dream come true.”
Ward Melville took the ice in Minnesota right before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School team from Florida, the district rocked by a tragic mass shooting in February. The Patriots wore stickers on their helmets that said, “MSD Strong,” the parents of the teams greeted one another, and the Stoneman Douglas kids applauded the Patriots as they took center stage.
“Most of the time when you watch hockey there are three forwards and two defensemen, and you can clearly see that on the ice, the difference with this team is there were five players out there regardless of what position they played that could score or defend.”
— Greg Kryjak
“It was a horrible tragedy and we hoped to show our support from the guys on Long Island,” Boritz said. “Being on that stage was something else. Out of all of the tournaments and showcases I’ve been to throughout my hockey career, nationals was the best game I’ve ever played in. It was a good challenge.”
Part of the program’s secret is four years ago Devlin created 10- to 12-year-old and 13- to 15-year-old developmental teams. The club also takes in players from the greater Port Jefferson area and Mount Sinai, hoping to expand in the future to create more teams.
“Those teams have taken off,” Devlin said. “Now, I think they’re looking at creating a 7- to 10-year-old team, so from a community aspect we’re getting kids involved in hockey at the lowest levels now.”
Current vice president Greg Kryjak said watching the varsity Patriots excel the way they did was jaw-dropping, especially with a 126-21 goal differential.
“Most of the time when you watch hockey there are three forwards and two defensemen, and you can clearly see that on the ice, the difference with this team is there were five players out there regardless of what position they played that could score or defend,” he said. “It really differentiated them from the rest of the teams.”
This set the stage for a dynamic playoff atmosphere, where Devlin said people had to be turned away as the rink filled with high school classmates and parents. The team bested St. John the Baptist 5-2 and blanked reigning league champion Smithtown-Hauppauge 5-0 in a decisive game three for the Patriots’ first league title. Ward Melville went 4-1 in the state tournament to secure a place in the final game, which the team won 3-0.
“We’re huge with offense — scored a lot of goals this year,” Boritz said. “It wasn’t just the first line — every single line all the way to the fourth line, everyone was contributing, which was great to see because a few years prior it wasn’t really like that.”
Co-captain Brendan Callow was also recognized by Devlin as being a big playmaker out on the ice, especially when some of the other major contributors were out with injuries.
“He won games almost single handily, and he’s the most humble, high-character kid you’d ever meet,” the coach said. “If I had to pick one kid, he’s the guy who when we needed a big goal or we needed something going on, he did it. He was also an extension of the coaching staff. Because he’s such a great player and a great guy, the rest of the team looked up to him.”
Blanking Smithtown 5-0 was significant for the team, after Ward Melville lost in devastating fashion to the Bulls in the state finals two years ago with 2.1 seconds left in a decisive game three.
“That was one of the most heart wrenching losses we’ve ever had,” said Devlin, who was an assistant at the time. “They’ve been our nemesis. It was thrilling to beat them.”
He said he was also feeling so many different emotions at the time of the win because his son was one of 13 seniors on the squad, and because he’d been coaching 10 of the upperclassmen since they were 5 years old.
“They’re second and third sons to me — I’ve watched them grow up,” Devlin said. “Their work ethic, their accountability, their love for each other, no one wanted to let the guy next to them down. To watch these seniors go out on top like that, it was a fairytale ending. I couldn’t have written a better script.”
Photos courtesy of Ward Melville Ice Hockey
This post was updated July 18 to correct Ward Melville’s record in the state tournament.