There was no state high-school-hockey champion in New Jersey in 1989, there were two: St. Joseph’s (of Montvale) and Delbarton, both powerhouses featuring a raft of all-state players. They were set to meet in the state finals — until the state athletic association, worried about a measles outbreak at Delbarton, simply canceled the game. Now, 21 years later, the showdown is finally happening.
In 1989, St. Joe’s (24–2–1) and Delbarton’s Green Wave (24–3–2) were the two top-ranked teams in the state. St. Joe’s Kenny Blum and Delbarton’s Derek Maguire were both taken in the 9th round of the 1989 NHL Draft (Blum by the Minnesota North Stars, Maguire by the Montreal Canadiens; neither made it to the big leagues, though Blum played professionally until 2004). It was, by all accounts, a dream matchup. But when more than a dozen students and teachers at Delbarton came down with measles, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association decided on a Friday night to cancel the title game scheduled for the next evening.
“Nobody believed it at first,” says St. Joseph’s Scott Williams. “Remember, there’s no Internet, no cell phones. It was through the grapevine. Until we went to school that Monday, I don’t think we all grasped what it meant. We were saying, ‘Did this weekend just happen? Weren’t we supposed to play the game?’ And on Monday, it was over. That’s it. The state couldn’t pull that off today, because parents and lawyers would be all over them to reschedule it.”
Instead, the NJSIAA declared the teams co-champs, and that was the end of the story until last March, when the Star-Ledger newspaper ran a piece about the twentieth anniversary of the championship game that never happened. Delbarton’s Mike Pendy, an assistant captain on the 1989 team, was quoted as saying: “Maybe we could get all these guys together 20 years later, lace up the skates somewhere and play that game.” Pendy was joking, but Williams took the idea seriously. Late last fall, he contacted James Olsen, a defenseman from that the Delbarton team who still plays with a number of Delbarton graduates at the Essex Hunt Club (the onetime practice facility for the Green Wave) in Peapeck. Olsen wasn’t sure he wanted to go to the logistical trouble of putting a game together until Williams suggested they make the event a fund-raiser for cancer-related charities, including the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer initiative. “Scott’s mom was suffering from brain cancer; he said this could be a great story, and at the same time we could raise some money for charity,” says Olsen, whose own father had previously passed away after a fight with brain cancer.
After a brief dalliance with Newark’s Prudential Center (one of the owners is a Delbarton grad), the Frozen Flashback organizers decided to play the game at the Mennen Arena in Morristown — the site of the originally scheduled game and Delbarton’s home rink. They employed each school’s alumni network to track down team members. The response was astounding: Roughly 40 of the original 46 players from 1989 are expected to suit up on April 3 in Morristown. To help offset roster shortfalls, each team will be allowed five subs, provided they are alumni who graduated prior to 1989. Preparation varies, says Pendy: “Some guys have been playing, and some are running out to buy equipment.” Attendance could reach as high as 2,500, and both sides expect the competition to be intense. (But clean — as in most adult recreational leagues, no checking will be allowed. Says Delbarton’s Maguire: “We’ll have our wives and kids in the stands.”)
One thing’s for certain: This game will not end in a draw. “I don’t think we can let it go,” says Olsen, laughing. “We’ll have to keep playing.”