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Sticking together

For a group of Hockey East players, 'St. Sebs' days will always resonate

Sheets of ice named Gallo and Hobomock, Ulin and Pilgrim are the first stages upon a hockey journey, but to get from there to wherever a youngster's skates will take him, a variety of routes can be navigated. None of them comes with guarantees, all of them mandate unconventional means.

And these nomadic hockey odysseys sometimes provide times of priceless joy that cannot be described, only experienced. That is the backdrop to a story of one group of local players who no matter where they go in their hockey careers will forever circle an intersection where they shared a love of the game that was unified and pure -- St. Sebastian's School in Needham.

"They embraced us at that school. They opened up their arms at a time in our lives when you're clueless as to who you are and what you are," said Sean Sullivan, whose hockey has taken him from South Boston to Boston University, where he is the senior captain of Jack Parker's Terriers. As Sullivan prepares for his final go-round in the Hockey East Tournament, which begins with quarterfinal games tonight, he views a landscape that features fierce opponents from archrival Boston College (Brian Boyle and Joe Rooney) and New Hampshire (Kevin Regan) and Northeastern (Mike Morris) who may not share his team colors but echo his passion for St. Sebastian's.

"Obviously, that was a very special time for all of us," said Regan, the standout UNH goaltender. "You're never as close as a team as you are when you're that age."

Like Sullivan and Kenny Roche, another BU senior who played at St. Sebastian's, Regan hails from South Boston, so these three players have a bond that goes back even further. Barry Regan, Kevin's father, coached them on their introduction to travel hockey, a Mite C team that played "buzzer-hockey" at Pilgrim Arena in Hingham. He stayed with them through Squirts and into the Boston Junior Terriers metro level.

Along the way, as more competitive leagues beckoned, the Southie boys crossed paths with Boyle from Hingham, Rooney from Canton, and Morris from Dorchester. Sometimes they were teammates, sometimes they were opponents, but forever they'll be friends, thanks to their days together at St. Sebastian's, an independent Catholic school with an enrollment of approximately 350 boys in grades 7-12.

"I know people think we all sat down as parents one night and said, 'Let's all go to high school together,' " said Barry Regan with a laugh, "but believe me, this was not a plan. It's just the way it worked out."

And the way it worked out was beyond anything the boys, their parents, and their high school coach could have dreamed.

Formidable years
St. Sebastian's coach Steve Dagdigian is most proud of the leadership his former players have assumed, for Sullivan, Boyle, and Morris are senior captains for their respective teams. He points to their success at the college level -- Boyle and Rooney have helped BC win a Hockey East Tournament and get to an NCAA championship game; Sullivan and Roche were key members of the Terriers a year ago when they won the Hockey East Tournament; and Regan and the Wildcats took this year's regular-season title -- as proof to the talent he was once blessed to coach.

"They are all so passionate about the game," said Dagdigian, who played his hockey at Needham High School and Harvard. "You don't get to be that accomplished for that long without a love of the game."

If that's true -- and Dagdigian's former players will not disagree -- then to a man they will tell you that while they may have been born with a love of hockey, it was the years at St. Sebastian's that showed them what it meant to be part of a team.

"I can't say enough about the people there, how they made us feel like family," said Roche, the first of the group to enroll at St. Sebastian's, as a seventh-grader. Sullivan entered a year later, then as ninth-graders in 1999-2000 they were joined by Boyle and Regan.

Each of them by their early teenage years had embraced the notion of playing high school hockey and each had considered other options.

Coming out of St. Mary's in South Boston, Roche was all set to go to Catholic Memorial. Sullivan had designs on going to Boston College High School or possibly Noble & Greenough. Regan was already situated at Boston Latin. Boyle had attended parochial school through eighth grade and knew he was going to continue along those same lines in high school. The kid from Hingham made one visit to Needham and was sold on St. Sebastian's, comfortable with the dress code (shirt and tie) and the structured academic environment. Oh, and the familiar hockey faces only added to the comfort level.

"I can't lie, it was nice that [Roche and Sullivan] were there and that [Regan] was going, too," said Boyle, "but really, the school was just a great fit."

As freshmen, the four of them played on a team that caused very little commotion during a 16-8 campaign -- unless you count the noise that came thundering down from the stands inside of Henry T. Lane Rink where the Arrows packed them in.

"It's not just the hockey team, it's the whole school," said Sullivan. "They rally around their teams. I mean, our freshman year we weren't that good, but the fans were there screaming and yelling. I just didn't think that happened at an ISL school."

Championship mode
Sullivan discovered otherwise, much to his delight, and over the next three years he and his teammates provided the St. Sebastian's faithful more reason than ever to scream and yell. They were the nucleus of teams that went 81-9-3 from 2000-03, three remarkable seasons that they insist provided memories they'll carry forever.

"When people look back 20, 30 years from now and talk about the glory days of St. Sebs hockey," said Roche, "I'm going to be proud to say we were part of it."

And even on the eve of the Hockey East Tournament for these collegiate stars, no memory stirs their emotions like that of the final game to the 2000-01 Independent School League season. Putting the finishing touch on a 29-1-1 campaign, the Arrows slipped past heavily favored Cushing Academy, 1-0, to win their first New England Prep School championship.

"They had a wagon," said Rooney, who was then a freshman on a team led by senior captain Noah Welch (later of Harvard fame, now property of the NHL's Florida Panthers). "No one in that building thought we could win."

Morris, then a junior, remembers the bus ride to that game and how Dagdigian popped in the movie, "Miracle on Ice," that told the story of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. "That's kind of what that game [against] Cushing was like," said the NU captain. "We didn't have the highest expectations that year. We were just finding ourselves."

If the Arrows needed motivation, they found it in what was at the heart of their identity: As students at the only ISL school that didn't offer boarding, the boys were local kids who commuted, their days often times 14 hours from start to finish.

"Looking back, it was unbelievable that we could go out and compete against those teams," said Sullivan. "It made it all the more special."

What sweetened the story even more was St. Sebastian's second straight New England Prep School championship, courtesy of a win over Taft in 2001-02 that culminated a 26-4-1 campaign. Then, in 2002-03, the Arrows made ISL history with their third consecutive Keller Division regular-season title, but with Roche and another key senior, defenseman Alex DiPietro (now a sophomore standout at Babson), sidelined, the Arrows were edged by Deerfield, 2-1, in the New England prep final.

And with that, it was over. The splendid high school hockey saga that they had scripted for four years -- one they had naively considered to be perpetual -- was at a close. What they discovered was, their friendships were not.

Special reuniting
They are an unlikely pair to be at the center of this St. Sebastian's saga, two city girls and former classmates at South Boston High School. But Carole Sullivan and Maureen Roche provide flavor to the tale and recognize the fabric that holds it together, even as their boys have become Terriers while others from the St. Sebs days are Eagles and Wildcats and Huskies.

"They all manage to get together, in season and offseason," said Carole Sullivan, who moved to Braintree with her husband and two sons when Sean was in fifth grade. "With these boys, it's friendship; it's not about who did what to who on the ice."

She was the mother of a young son and enjoying a few days skiing in New Hampshire nearly 20 years ago when Carole Sullivan bumped into Maureen Roche, her onetime high school friend. Both were married and still living in Southie and both had delivered baby boys within months of one another -- Kenny Roche being born Jan. 2, 1984, Sean Sullivan March 29.

Having drifted apart, the friends were brought together by these boys and their pursuit of hockey. Cruel winter days, warm summer nights -- it didn't matter. Kenny Roche and Sean Sullivan were into hockey and for boys like them, there is always a team to join, always a sheet of ice to be skated upon. Youth hockey games turned more serious, and when teammates started joining the scene from suburbs south of Boston, the parents soon were very much along for the ride.

"We made all those trips to Canada and to places like Bridgeport, Conn.," said Maureen Roche. "We always had a caravan and I think the parents became fast friends and really enjoyed themselves."

To the parents, as it was to the players, St. Sebastian's was the glue that kept it all together.

"It's an incredible school. It offered the boys leadership and camaraderie and the kids didn't care that it meant long days," said Maureen Roche. "You just made it work."

As inseparable as her son and Sean Sullivan had been since their Mite C days, Maureen Roche also witnessed the special bond Kenny had with Morris and Regan, and while it's Boston gospel that Eagles and Terriers are allergic to one another, the BU senior winger knows his friendship with Boyle and Rooney is bigger than that.

That is why their search for colleges didn't pull them apart. Roche was among the first from that group of 2003 graduates to make a decision, choosing BU before the start of his senior year. He concedes he had toyed with the idea of joining Morris at NU, but from his days as a Junior Terrier, Roche had dreamed of being on Parker's team, so when it came to fruition, "I was so excited, I had no desire to visit BC," and he canceled an official visit to The Heights.

Boyle went through with his BU visit and when he did, he ran into Sullivan, who had by that time committed to play for the Terriers. "It was good to see him, because he's a close friend," said Boyle. "That kind of made the decision tough, but this [BC] is the place where I've always wanted to go."

Rooney -- who played for the Walpole Stars in 2002-03 and left St. Sebastian's for Canton High School, where he was afforded the chance to accelerate his studies in order to graduate in the spring of 2003 -- had chosen BC a year earlier and remembers when he heard that Boyle was thinking of doing likewise. "I told him to do it," said Rooney. "I told him we'd be roommates."

Foremost, friends
True to his word, Rooney and Boyle have been roommates, and last Saturday night they played in their final regular-season home game for Boston College, a 4-2 win completing a weekend sweep of Regan and the UNH Wildcats.

On both Friday and Saturday evening, the postgame lineup brought players together for customary handshakes and while most of them were obligatory, those between Regan and Boyle and Regan and Rooney were not, not unlike those between Morris and Roche or Boyle and Sullivan and, well, you get the picture.

"All these kids grew up working hard to get what they wanted," said Barry Regan. "When their friends went to the beach or hung out on the street corners, these kids worked at hockey. For kids coming out of Southie, the first thing they have instilled in them is they have to work hard because no one is going to give you anything. They've been together through games and classes; they have more of a bond than most friends."

It's a bond so thick that even ferocious body checks or grueling corner confrontations or collisions in the crease can't shake it. That is at the root of a hockey mentality that has existed since skates had double-runners. What happens on the ice, stays on the ice.

Dagdigian isn't surprised his former players personify this philosophy.

"Hockey brings it out," said the coach. "The sport is unique in that respect and these kids are so special and so talented in so many ways."

Said Sullivan, brushing off the praise: "You have so much time off the ice to be friends, so it's easy for 60 minutes to put aside your friendship and compete."

That competition has some shelf life, though the collegiate days are dwindling fast. Roche and Sullivan don't know how four BU seasons have gone so quickly, a sentiment echoed by Boyle and Rooney, those former Arrows at the other end of Commonwealth Avenue. All of them are determined to make the final stretch of games the sweetest.

They concede that college has been gratifying in so many ways, and the fact that each of them played all four campaigns and ignored temptations to cash in on their NHL draft opportunities is a source of pride. But eventually they will agree with Regan's assessment, that the St. Sebs days still offer a yardstick that is hard to match for pure, youthful hockey exuberance.

"High school was different," said Kenny Roche. "I remember in the locker room one day at St. Sebs, [assistant coach Jed Doherty] read a letter from Carl Corazzini, who had played at St. Sebastian's and was then the BU captain. J.D. read it to the whole team and Corazzini wanted to tell us that this was the last time we were going to get to play for ourselves, that at the next level it wouldn't be like that, that it would be more like a job.

"It's one of things I'll always remember."

Which is another way of saying they'll never forget St. Sebs.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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