The eighth annual East Coast Classic Vineyard Cup hockey tournament last weekend was an example of rink-ratting at the highest level, a talent showcase of first-tier hockey skills from top pros, college stars, hopefuls, and rink rats, guys who just love to play the game.
The Vineyard Kings, the Island entry, did themselves proud, qualifying for the championship round and finishing fourth in the event behind the efforts of well-known Island names like Tyson and Tristan Araujo, Jason Schwab, Garri Saganenko, and Alex Vukota, who all lit the lamp over the weekend, and netminder Nick Kent, who battled to keep an array of players, including current NHL All-Star Noah Hanifin, from lighting the lamp.
Goalies were the hardest workers in the 12-game tournament that was devoted to offensive skills. Physical play was discouraged, and body checking was banned, producing a place and time for offensive players to style and pass and to create open chances to shoot the puck. Goalies faced 50 quality shots a game, and Kent was lovin’ it.
A former Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (2015) standout, Kent was one of the few people sweating in the chilly Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena after he backstopped the Vineyard Kings to a 11-8 win over the Fialcons on Saturday afternoon.
“Yeah, this is great. It’s an opportunity to face top-quality shooters, including NHL players, and it’s a terrific off-season workout. Helps to stay sharp in the off-season,” he said.
The joy of playing is a big part of this tournament, hosted by Peter Alden, a Connecticut native who played for Toot Cahoon at UMass before moving on to play at Quinnipiac. He then launched ECC tournaments as part of a larger enterprise including coaching, camps, and clinics, providing elite tournaments to showcase talent at every level.
Alden has strong Island ties, with a longtime family home here. “The Vineyard Cup is more of a convenience for us, really. We enjoy doing it,” he said before the championship game, while his family was beaching it on a perfect Sunday afternoon.
Alden is a dedicated hockey lifer who gets the appeal of tournaments like his. For early-career players like Kent, it’s a chance to showcase and test yourself against the best. For advanced players, it’s a weekend workout on sunny Martha’s Vineyard, and for others it’s a chance to play good hockey.
The East Coast hockey community is close-knit. Many of the players know one another from high school, college, the pros, or junior hockey competition. They organize the teams themselves, come up with names like the Smokeponies or the Fialcons (“the guy who organized us is named Fialco,” a player on the Manhattan-based team explained).
Liam and Aiden Conley, Vineyard youth hockey standouts last season, were there with Dad Steve Conley for the thinly attended championship game, won by the Smokeponies, 6-2, over the Toe Dragons, who had barely bounced the Vineyard Kings by a 6-4 count in the semis.
“We came here to watch hockey,” Aiden declared. “They’re really good,” his brother observed. They were good. Contending for the championship, defenders were marking their men, trapping and lifting sticks, working the puck in small spaces.
Neither team scored until late in the second period, when the Smokeponies got untracked for a 2-0 lead. The teams traded early goals in the opening minutes of the third period before the Ponies pulled away for a 6-2 championship win.
Sam Kurker, a Reading guy by way of Northeastern University, now signed by the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets, got Player of the Game, thanks to his hat trick.
Those achievements are not lost on the Araujos and Kents, making their way in the hockey world. Kent has set his sights on playing in Sweden next year as part of his journey. Because you never know. All-Star defenseman Hanifin played for BC for one year, then found himself bluelining in the NHL by his 18th birthday.
You just never know.