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Cunningham has Brockton hockey on rebound

BROCKTON, Mass. -- It’s a decision that racks the brain of many young hockey players and their families each and every year in and around Massachusetts: To stay with the hometown program where you spent all of those hours and years on the ice, or to jump out of town to some of the more well-known private schools in the area.

Chris Cunningham remembered that choice when he was a young hockey player.

“In eighth grade I kind of though about different schools, but a bulk of the kids I grew up playing with were all coming to Brockton High,” he said. “It never really crossed my mind too much, so I wanted to stay and play with my friends.”

Now it’s Cunningham’s job to make sure the talented stickmen of Brockton stay close to home -- in the back parking lot, behind Brockton High School in the comforts of Asiaf Arena.

Cunningham is in the second year as head coach of the Boxers’ hockey program. After a successful 12-win season last year and a young nucleus — one that features six freshman on the varsity roster — he is hoping to continue building Brockton into a South Shore power like it was what seems like a long decade or so ago.

If he’s looking for success stories on the ice to relay to the young minds that are trying to make that difficult decision of staying or going, he can point to his own story.

The 1995 graduate of Brockton went on to play at UMass-Dartmouth, where he was an integral part of two ECAC Northeast championships in 1997 and 1998 — the latter team is recognized in the Corsairs Hall of Fame.

“I try and tell them that nobody is going to give them anything,” said Cunningham, whose team is off to a 3-1-1 start early in the season. “You have to earn it. My senior year [at Brockton] I was hurt most of the season. I didn’t get any looks and kind of went [to UMass-Dartmouth] as a walk on. I had to earn my way. It’s the same thing in high school. No matter where you are playing you will get noticed if you are working hard.”

His players have already taken to the lessons taught by the coach.

“He’s doing well and he knows what he is talking about,” freshman netminder Franco Massaro said. “ He was a good player and he is a good coach. Everyone loves him.”

There’s a quiet calm to Cunningham — not cocky, not arrogant — but a sense that he sees the direction he wants to take the program. His former head coach Bob D’Arcy also sees that quality in his former pupil.

“His intensity is there and he’s carrying that into a coach,” said D’Arcy, who serves as an assistant coach on the staff and whose voice can be heard bellowing through Asiaf Arena while the quieter Cunningham sits back and observes. “ He knows what he wants to do in practice. Every practice is planned and well organized. He’s a player’s kind of a coach. He talks to the kids. He doesn’t yell at them. He’s got a nice way with the kids taking them aside and talking to them rather than screaming at them. He brought that in. I was more of a yeller and a screamer.”

A YOUNG NUCLEUS

The Boxers have found their way into the MIAA tournament several times in the last decade, but have done so with a record hovering around .500, many times below that, thanks to a weakened Big Three hockey conference.

Cunningham has plenty of talent from upperclassmen, but the program’s long-term success could fall on the six freshman players who done the black-and-red this season. Leading that charge is Massaro in net, and so far the young baby-faced goalie has had several quality games between the pipes, including a 32-save performance in his debut against North Quincy.

“The freshmen on the team really need to build together, because we are together for the next four years,” Massaro said. “It will be really important to get to know how to play together. … We need to stick together and figure out how to win together along the way.”

Cunningham knows the bumps in the road are sure to come with a young team, especially with a tougher schedule lined up against the Bay State League and other Div. 1 schools, so he is trying to work on teaching the basics of the game while also game planning for certain opponents.

“It’s a tough balancing act, because you need to know the positioning for the game,” Cunningham said. “If they don’t have the fundamentals then you are really going against it. It’s a tough balancing act.”

KEEPING THE TALENT

Cunningham started seeing the shift in many of Brockton’s better players leaving for private schools from afar when he was working on his college degree at UMass-Dartmouth. To combat that epidemic from occurring again and tearing apart the Boxers’ program he is trying to be a little more proactive.

Cunningham is very involved with summer hockey programs in the area and also built a website to keep local families and players aware that the Boxers are an up-and-coming program.

“With the way that college hockey is going now, the players are 19 or 20 years old as freshman, so you are looking at going to a year of prep school or juniors after school,” Cunningham said. “So it doesn’t make sense to pay for prep school and then college on top of it. You can come to school for free and then go to the next level.”

It might just be two years in to the rebuilding process, but Cunningham is hearing more of a buzz from his friends and members of the community that better days are ahead for the Boxers on the ice.

“It’s very important,” said Cunningham. “There are a lot of guys and a lot of alumni that would really like to see the program to turn around. There are plenty of good hockey players in Brockton, it’s just a matter of keeping them here.”