RANDOLPH — As roughly 300 fans and supporters dressed in yellow jackets, scarves, and ribbons looked on, Steve Connelly stood at center ice at the Joseph Zapustas Arena and raised his right arm to display a puck imprinted with an angel above a yellow ribbon and the name “Paula” written underneath.
His eldest daughter, Lauren, a senior captain on the Braintree High varsity girls’ hockey team, lined up in front of her father for an honorary faceoff against Newton North captain Ashley Smith before the season opener last Wednesday night.
After Connelly dropped the puck, the crowd erupted, and he held his daughter for a long embrace.
The faceoff was one of the ways the Wamps showed their respect for Mary “Paula” Connelly, the team’s beloved hockey mom who lost her nearly two-year battle with bladder cancer last June, at age 51. Braintree will dedicate the 2012-13 season in her memory.
“This town is unbelievable,” said Steve Connelly. “The support they've shown for us and the kids, it's been unreal and it showed tonight. It makes us feel proud that their mom and my wife was a great woman. It shows by everyone that showed up tonight.”
All proceeds from the ticket sales for the Wamps' home opener against North, a 3-1 Bay State Conference win, went to the M. Paula Connelly fund.
The Connellys are all about hockey. Steve, a former goalie coach at Braintree High, introduced his three daughters, 18-year-old Lauren, along with Leah, 16, and Elizabeth, 11, to the game at an early age. He coached their youth teams and his wife, a Quincy native who attended Sacred Heart High School, was always a faithful follower in the stands.
Whether she was entertaining the team at her house for a pasta party, driving the girls to 5 a.m. practices, or sitting nestled in with the other moms, Paula Connelly made a remarkable impact in the community.
“Hockey season was my mom's favorite season,” said Lauren. “She would get so excited for it. She was the hockey mom. She was always there no matter what.”
As a freshman, she recalled coming home from tryouts, and as a prank, “I told her I didn’t make the team,” she recalled. “I started laughing and she said ‘you’re lying,’ and we both started laughing. She was so happy.”
Even when receiving treatment, Paula Connelly managed to go to games and stay positive during the Wamps’ spectacular run to the state semifinals a year ago, a 16-6-2 season that ended with a 3-2 overtime loss to eventual state champion Arlington Catholic.
“She wouldn't miss a game for anything,” chimed in Leah.
To show their support, each member of the team wears a patch on their uniform, an angel hovering over the bladder cancer ribbon with Paula’s name on it. The players also tape their sticks yellow and wear yellow ribbons in their hair.
Senior captain Rachael Brazil, who helped organize the dedication ceremony, said the Connellys are like family.
“The team is really close, it's a family,” said Brazil. “She was our hockey mom. When one person is going through something on the team, we all go through it. We have someone to play for now. She was there for and us; now we want to be there for them.”
Both Lauren and Leah said they've had great support from their teammates and their families. The other mothers helped build a memorial in the Connellys’ backyard, consisting of a bench in a stone garden with a memory tree for the family to sit outside and reflect.
Kylie Swain, a senior captain defenseman who has played alongside Lauren since sixth grade, said Paula Connelly was constantly cheering for the girls during their games and would be the first person to congratulate them postgame.
She hopes the ceremony helped illustrate how much Paula Connelly meant to everyone.
“It helped the girls know everyone is there for them and that they have a support team,” she said. “It gave us motivation to do well and beat [Newton North]. This game [was] for Paula.”
And it was evident from the start that the Wamps were playing for more than just two points. The game was scoreless through the first two periods — Brazil kept Braintree in the game with 28 saves.
Braintree finally broke through in the third period when sophomore forward Haley Payne converted a feed from Emily Cadigan. The lead was short-lived: Nicole Quinn tied the game a minute later.
The Wamps bounced back, with the Connelly sisters at the forefront. Leah, a right wing, crossed a pass to freshman forward Meg Gilbride, who knocked the puck into the net for a 2-1 lead.
With a little over three minutes remaining, Lauren found herself alone on the blue line. The senior center slung the puck back and sent a hard wrist shot under the crossbar to secure the victory.
“I was thrilled Lauren got the goal,” said coach Kevin Burchill. “I said to her, ‘I think your mother knocked that in.’ She had a great smile. She was thrilled.”
Earlier, Lauren had several shots on net, but kept missing high. She said Burchill encouraged her to keep shooting and it finally paid off. “I didn't think I was going to score,” she said. “I was getting a lot of chances but they weren't going in. Mr. Burchill told me to shoot from everywhere. I just let it go and closed my eyes and it went in."
And although Paula Connelly was not there to see her daughters play, her presence was definitely felt.
“It's emotional, but she's going to be with me on my shirt,” added Lauren. “I wear a yellow ribbon on my skate in remembrance of her so she's always going to be with me.”
The Wamps, who have just four seniors on the roster, followed up their win with a 1-1 tie against Milton on Saturday night.
“We want to make it just as far but we’re a lot younger,” said Lauren. “We’re focusing on getting in good shape, even better than last year because we don’t have the numbers.”