Ban on fans sparks outrage
Jan. melee prompted ouster; championship game in Malden ends in tie, peace
MALDEN -- Ron Zanazzo of the Northeast/Malden Knights slid the puck between the goalie's legs on a breakaway to score his team's first goal in its quest to win its first league championship in 13 years.
But there were no fans to roar in celebration, only his teammates banging their sticks against the boards. A half-dozen parents were forced to peer through the glass front doors about 10 feet away for a glimpse of the action.
"It was good that the team was really excited, but without the fans yelling it really took a lot out of it," said Zanazzo, a junior center.
All fans had been banished from the rink after last month's game against their rivals from Shawsheen Valley Regional Technical High School of Billerica devolved into a melee, with a 17-year-old spectator needing stitches after he was hit in the head with a hockey stick. Last night, a half-dozen police kept watch around the rink to deter violence and to prevent overzealous parents from sneaking inside.
This is what youth sports have come to in Massachusetts: Some are not allowed to watch.
In Malden last night, only about two dozen school officials, reporters, and others saw the game. Parents gathered outside the rink in hopes that officials would relent.
"We're not here to start trouble. We were hoping to be here to cheer our children on," said Revere resident Annette Viscarello, whose son, Chris, is a goalie for Northeast/Malden.
"It was upsetting and, I think, very unfair to the parents," said Cindy Chase, whose son Hank plays for Shawsheen and who stood in the rain holding a sign that said, "Let's Go Rams."
"I've been to every game since he started playing hockey," Chase said.
The rare fan ban is school administrators' latest strategy for defusing the tension that sometimes escalates into fisticuffs on the courts and fields and in the bleachers.
On Nantucket, administrators barred students from attending last weekend's basketball games, after players and fans repeatedly charged the court during a game last week against Provincetown.
"Clearly, school officials are getting increasingly concerned about violence and misbehavior in general on the part of teenagers," said Paul Wetzel, spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. "Clearly, if they're going to make a mistake, they're going to err on the side of safety."
More and more, specific spectators are being barred from sporting events, said Wetzel, pointing to three schools the MIAA knows barred problem fans this year.
Administrators at Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School in Wakefield said they decided they could not guarantee anyone's safety if spectators were allowed to attend last night's game. At the Jan. 7 game in Billerica between the schools, Shawsheen fans allegedly taunted the Northeast/Malden competitors as they came off the ice. When the crowd pressed in, a "wild melee" erupted for about 90 seconds, said Billerica Deputy Police Commander John Glavin.
Three days after that incident, officials at Northeast, which would host the next contest, decided to bar all spectators.
"Hockey has had a black eye for a few years," said Northeast's athletic director, David Keough. "And I give my administration credit. They said, 'We're going to do what we can to stop this.' "
What they did not know then was how pivotal a game it would be. The Northeast team, which had not seen a championship since 1992 and which merged last year with Malden High School's team, had won 11 games in a row since Jan. 7.
That meant last night's matchup was for the conference championship. And parents, blocked from cheering on their children, were outraged.
"I went to Europe to see my son play, and I can't see him play in my own backyard," said Francine Piwinski, whose son, A.J., is a senior.
School officials decided to videotape the game and to broadcast it later on cable access. But parents from all three schools were unmoved and sent petitions to administrators asking them to reconsider.
As it turned out, the teams tied 3-3, which means they may share the title. A fitting ending, said Shawsheen Superintendent Charles Lyons.
He and other administrators said they wanted to use the opportunity to teach students a valuable lesson, and they said parents should not consider the ban a punishment.
"The feedback from everybody but the parents has been, 'It's about time,' " said Northeast principal John X. Crowley.
When two parents called Lyons to protest the plan yesterday, he said he told them: "This is a teaching moment. Let's get on with it."
"There's a certain demeanor and a certain behavior that we expect everyone to uphold," Lyons said. "And when we don't have that, we will take appropriate and measured action."
In their petition and in interviews, Northeast/Malden parents blamed Shawsheen for not having a police detail at the Jan. 7 game.
"I don't believe in fighting, but they were also put in a situation by Shawsheen without a police officer there, and they got attacked," said Annamaria Schrimpf, whose twin sophomores both play. "My concern as a parent is, I should assume that as soon as they step on the ice, there is a police officer there to ensure their safety."
The Middlesex district attorney's office is still reviewing videotape from the Jan. 7 game to determine whether anyone will be prosecuted. Billerica police could not identify anyone in the video, and the Shawsheen student who suffered the most serious injuries did not want to press charges, Glavin said.
That student, Bill MacKenzie of Tewksbury, said he had been struck with a hockey stick in the melee. A former hockey player himself, he has been banned from attending future games. "It wasn't all that bad," he said. "It was just a fight. It happens all the time."
Globe correspondent Amanda Pinto contributed to this report.Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.