Welcome back, Winter Classic.
That was the sentiment shared by the members of the Greenwich and Darien boys hockey teams, which renewed their rivalry by competing in a game they’ve had marked on their respective calendars for quite some time.
Following a one-season hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Winter Classic returned to Greenwich Skating Club’s outdoor rink Wednesday, with the Blue Wave and Cardinals treating the crowd to a well-played, back-and-forth battle.
Greenwich scored first in this much-anticipated FCIAC matchup held just before the New Year, but Darien used a three-goal second period to gain the lead and keep its unbeaten season intact.
Getting goals from four players, Darien raised its early-season record to 3-0-1 with a 4-2 comeback win over Greenwich before a large crowd at Greenwich Skating Club. The game was the first of two regular season meetings between the Blue Wave and Cardinals and this matchup had the teams especially hyped up.
“We waited for two long years,” said Darien senior Billy Branca, one of the team’s captains. “I was fortunate to be one of the five guys that played in this competition two years ago when we won for the first time, so to get back at it is great.”
Branca, who plays left wing and skates on Darien’s first line, registered an assist for his squad, which received goals from Henry Gregory, Graham Kreppein, Jack Collins and Chris Davis.
“This night is special because of the atmosphere,” Branca said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of being able to play outside and have a bunch of fans right here on the glass. It was a special night for both teams.”
The Cardinals (1-3) held a 1-0 lead after the first period, then after falling behind, 2-1, tied the score, before the Blue Wave tallied the game’s final two goals. Senior Nate Duffy and sophomore Jackson Price recorded the goals for Greenwich, which saw significant improvement, after they were held scoreless in consecutive losses to Fairfield Prep and Xavier.
“I thought we competed much better,” Greenwich coach Jack Duffy said. “The last couple of games we haven’t been able to get on the scoreboard, I think our compete level was much better today. It obviously wasn’t the result we were looking for, but I think we’re getting better. We made some strides tonight against a tough Darien team and I think the boys are disappointed right now, but they should take some good things away from it.”
The first Winter Classic at Greenwich Skating Club took place in 2017, with Greenwich edging Darien, 4-3. The Cardinals won in 2018, then Darien emerged victorious in 2019. The late Chris Rurak, who died in July of 2020, coordinated the Winter Classic. Rurak was Greenwich’s beloved coach for four winning seasons.
“This was Chris Rurak’s baby, I’m so very grateful to him for creating the experience, which is a great hockey day for all of our kids,” Darien coach Mac Budd said. “They circle the date every year. We feel blessed to have the opportunity to play in a game like this. It’s awesome for the guys and we’re grateful to Greenwich to be kind enough to have us here.”
In Wednesday’s matchup, Darien had the shots-on-goal advantage in the first period, but Greenwich had the lead. Junior goalie Cole Studwell, who made more than 15 first-period saves, kept the Blue Wave off the scoreboard, enabling GHS to take the early edge.
“The shots were pretty lopsided, he played a great game,” coach Duffy said of Studwell, who received solid support from his defensemen “The score could have been different without him in goal.”
Greenwich took a 1-0 lead with 2:08 remaining in the opening period. Controlling a loose puck, Price went top shelf with a snap shot that zipped past Darien senior goalie Chris Schofield for the game’s first goal. The tally was the first of Price’s varsity career.
“I saw my buddy dump it in and I went there, it bounded off the boards and I kind of whacked at it short side and it went in,” said Price, who appreciated the opportunity to play outdoors at Greenwich Skating Club.
“With the fans and everything, I used to play for the Skating Club, so it’s very nostalgic for me,” Price added. It was nice to come out here and play with all my friends and have fun in my first Winter Classic.”
The Cards maintained their one-goal advantage, as Studwell turned away 10 shots the first 10 minutes of the second period. Schofield (16 saves for the game) also made key saves in the period to keep the score 1-0.
Then came a wild span of just over two minutes that featured four goals. Gregory, who skates on the third line, tallied off a rush up the ice, with the assists going to freshman Aidan Elders and junior Bobby Whitaker, making it 1-1 at the 4:36 mark of the second period.
Gathering the puck near the boards in Greenwich’s zone, Branca moved the puck to Kreppein, who put a one-timer home, putting the Blue Wave in front, 2-1 with 3:04 to go in the second period.
“After that first period being down one, we showed a lot of resilience and I’m real proud of the boys all around,” Branca said. “Off that first period, we had around 20 shots, which is high for us. Towards the end of the second period, we definitely knew that we needed to start popping some into the back of the net, so once we got the first once we knew the second was bound to come. Luckily I was able to help my team, I got a nice assist on that.”
Greenwich quickly knotted the score at 2-2 when Nate Duffy tallied on a breakout off a pass from junior William Duncan at the 2:10 mark of the second period.
“Lately we have been working in practice on 3-on-1s, 3-on-2s and that was a perfect example of that,” said Nate Duffy, one of the Cards’ senior captains.
The Cardinals forward feels the team can gain some momentum from the matchup.
“We obviously wanted to come out with the win, but we knocked off all that rust from the last two games and we got two goals – not enough – but we’re starting to get going,” Duffy said.
Just seven seconds after Duffy tied the score, the Blue Wave regained the lead. Collins got behind Greenwich’s defensemen off the faceoff and went top shelf with a shot from between the circles, giving Darien the advantage for good at 3-2.
“It’s tough, the boys were excited to tie it at 2-2, then when of our ‘D’ men fell down and they come right back and it was like a little bit of a roller coaster,” Jack Duffy said. “I thought we righted the ship pretty good, we kept it tight and had some opportunities there in the third.”
Said Budd: “The message after the first period was, we liked what’s going on out there, but we felt we could have a little bit better net presence and I think in the second and third period we saw that and we were able to punch a few in.”
Davis gave the Blue Wave a two-goal lead by scoring at the 4:23 mark of the final period. Both goalies made several saves during the final period.
“Schofield is the heart of the team,” said Branca, who wore the team’s hardhat following the game for his fine effort. “He is our only four-year player on this team. He is the heart and soul in the locker room. He is the one getting the boys ready every day. We know we can rely on him to get those big saves.”
Up next for Greenwich is a game against FCIAC rival New Canaan at Dorothy Hamill Skating Rink on Jan. 5.
“The Winter Classic is a great event,” Jack Duffy said. “It’s a great event for both towns and we look forward to having it every year going forward.”