Stoneman Douglas club hockey heads to nationals with mixed emotions

Stoneman Douglas hockey team playing to honor victims (9:47)

Playing with heavy hearts after the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, the men's hockey team rallied to capture the state title and qualify for nationals. (9:47)

"Man, that thing was heavy. I was having trouble with it."

The "thing" Matt Hauptman described the other day was the Stanley Cup. Hauptman, the captain of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School hockey team, and his Eagles teammates got to hoist the Cup on March 5 when the NHL and the Florida Panthers surprised them at a special practice at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida.

Matt's right, it is heavy. The silver and nickel Cup weighs 34.5 pounds, and the length of 35.25 inches makes it hard to handle. There's also a ton of history behind it -- 125 years' worth. But none of the teams who have hoisted the Cup have ever had to do what Stoneman Douglas has done.

The weight the Stoneman Douglas players bore last month at the Tier I Amateur Hockey of Florida state championships was immeasurable. As they dressed for the first game of the four-team tournament Feb. 23-25 at Germain Arena in Estero, Florida, they couldn't not think of the 17 victims killed in the massacre at their school on Feb. 14, especially because one of them was 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg, the younger sister of teammate Jesse Guttenberg. Then, after losing the first three games of the state tournament, they pulled off a pair of back-to-back upsets on that Sunday to win the state title and qualify for nationals.

In so doing, they lifted up a heartbroken Stoneman Douglas community, and an entire sport, as well. And as if that weren't enough, they decided to take on even more weight later that day. Rather than celebrate, they chose to remember others.

For now, the Eagles are on their way to Plymouth, Minnesota, to play in USA Hockey's National High School Championships. It's a long way from Parkland, Florida, geographically and meteorologically, but fortunately, the Florida Panthers have arranged for them to fly to Minneapolis in the club's chartered plane. That's just one of many heartfelt gestures extended to the Eagles in the past month.

There was the Stanley Cup, of course. "My jaw dropped when they brought out the Cup," assistant captain Matthew Horowitz said after the Eagles' last practice before the national tournament. "It felt like we had won it. Yeah, it was heavy, but the moment you touch it, a rush of adrenaline goes right through you."

The day before, on March 4, Shayne Gostisbehere, a Philadelphia Flyers defenseman who grew up in Parkland and went to Stoneman Douglas, invited the team to be his guests for the Flyers' game at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. Senators goalie Craig Anderson, a resident of Parkland since his days with the Panthers, extended the same sort of invitation on March 12.

One downside to all these offers is that it hasn't left the Eagles much time to practice for the nationals. "We're going to be a little rusty," said Eric LaForge, their coach. "Then again, we didn't look very good going into that final day at the States."

At an outdoor café in Parkland, Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jaime and Jesse, talked about the response of the hockey community to the tragedy. We were sitting with Peter Kahn, whose son, Giancarlo, plays on the Eagles' Tier II team with Jesse. Fred was wearing a T-shirt with an illustration of angel wings surrounding the orange ribbon that people are wearing to honor Jaime. "The Panthers and the NHL have been unbelievably kind," he said. "They have given their time and their money, and I will be forever grateful."

When Peter, who's a prominent fight manager and marketer, expressed his ambivalence about accepting all these gifts in the wake of the shootings, Fred said, "Listen, I understand the mixed emotions. We lost our baby girl, and nothing will ever make that pain go away. I will make it my life's work to see that no parent ever has to go through what we are going through. But I'm also appreciative of the outpouring from people's hearts. And we're hockey fans -- Jaime loved dancing but she also loved to go to Panthers games. If holding the Stanley Cup brings a smile to Jesse's face, even for a moment, that's a good thing.

"Do you know what hockey's best gift has been? The locker room. My son's teammates have put their arms around his shoulders and made him feel like part of their family. They have given him tremendous support in this awful time."

The story of the Eagles' state championship actually begins in a locker room -- the Panthers' clubhouse. On Thursday, Feb. 22, the day before the state tournament, the club dedicated its game against the Washington Capitals to the Stoneman Douglas community. All the board advertisements around the rink were removed and replaced by "MSD Strong" logos. The players wore Stoneman Douglas hats during warmups and "MSD" patches on their sleeves.

After a pregame video tribute to the victims, goalie and Parkland resident Roberto Luongo gave a moving speech that finished with this: "I've been watching the news and I've been seeing what the kids from Stoneman Douglas have been doing. I am very proud of you guys. You guys are brave. You guys are an inspiration to all of us. At the end of the day, you guys are what's giving us hope for the future."

That night, the Panthers beat the Capitals 3-2 to start a six-game winning streak that got them back in the playoff hunt. Afterward, they invited the Stoneman Douglas team to come down to the clubhouse.

"I was expecting that we would walk through the locker room, and that would be it," said LaForge, a Quebec native. "But their players really engaged with our players. They took the time to get to know us, to give the kids advice, to ask about our season. A few of them even said they might drive over to Estero the next day to lend their support, but we thought they were just being nice. I finally had to pull our players out of there so they could get their rest."

The team caravan for Estero on the Gulf Coast took off Friday afternoon -- it's about a two-hour drive in traffic. Also making the drive were three of the Panthers players: center Nick Bjugstad and defensemen Mark Pysyk and Alexander Petrovic. "It's one thing to give us time in the locker room," LaForge said. "It's another to drive two hours there and two hours back. At least we gave them a good game to see."

It was a good game, but a 4-3 loss to North Broward Prep in an overtime shootout. "I told them I was really proud of them," LaForge said. "It was a short speech so they could have more time with the Panthers, who came by afterwards. Nick was especially encouraging, but they all left a strong impression on the kids. Think of that -- NHL players coming to watch you play. I figured we were primed for our two games the next day."

The less said about Saturday the better. "Hockey's a funny sport," LaForge said. "Here I was thinking that this was the best team I've coached in my six years with the team, and we go out and play the worst hockey we've played all year. We were undisciplined in our loss to East Lake in the morning. That afternoon, against Tampa Jesuit, we were even worse, losing 5-2. The players were arguing with each other, trying to do too much individually. In retrospect, I understand what happened. We were running on emotion, we weren't using our heads."

Because there were only four teams in the tournament, the three losses did not eliminate Stoneman Douglas -- it just meant that the Eagles would have to play No. 1 seed East Lake again in the morning. Two things happened that Saturday night that would help turn things around. One, LaForge decided to try a new line. Two, some of the players decided to have an impromptu meeting in the motel.

"There were about eight of us," Matt Hauptman recalled. "We knew we were better than what we showed that day. For the seniors, we realized these might be our last games for Stoneman Douglas. We figured, hey, let's try to go out winners."

LaForge looked at them the next morning. "I could see the change in the kids right away," he said. "There was this quiet determination. It might have been their talk the night before, but I think they had it in them all along."

He also sent out his new line: Adam Hauptman at center, Matt Hauptman at left wing, Matthew Horowitz at right wing. East Lake scored first, but Stoneman Douglas came right back to tie. Midway through the third period, Matt Hauptman put the Eagles up 2-1. As the clock wound down, East Lake pulled their goalie, and the captain put in an empty-netter for his second goal and a 3-1 win.

Bonnie Hauptman, the mother of Adam and Matt, as well as the team manager, looked up at the clock and saw her older son had scored with exactly 17 seconds left. "I got goose bumps," she said. "My husband went over to the scorer's table to make sure. Seventeen."

But the Eagles hardly had time to celebrate -- they had to play Tampa Jesuit at noon. Because of an injury and a player who had to leave, they were a little strapped. But they also had a player coming back from a suspension.

"We looked around at how many players we had," said Matthew Horowitz. "Exactly 17. One for each of the people who lost their lives that day."

The game wasn't even close. Adam Hauptman scored first, Matthew Horowitz made it 2-0 and Matt Hauptman scored twice to give Stoneman Douglas a 4-0 lead after the first period. Their line scored all seven goals in the 7-4 victory, and Adam ended up with a hat trick.

Once the championship medals were put around their necks, Matthew Horowitz made a suggestion that all 17 players instantly agreed to. "I thought we should put our medals on the 17 memorials back at school."

They had to go back to Marjory Stoneman Douglas anyway -- Sunday, Feb. 25, also was the day of an open house at the school for students and parents, a way for them to ease back into their routines and surroundings before resuming classes the following Wednesday.

"On the car ride back with my parents," Adam Hauptman said, "we were happy but kinda quiet. We didn't know what to expect when we got back to school. We knew we had won the state title, but we didn't think it was that big a deal. Then I get on Instagram and social media and see how excited people are. We were going viral."

The players' first order of business when they arrived at school was to give Stoneman Douglas principal Ty Thompson a team hat. Then they spread the word that there would be a special ceremony at 6 p.m. at the memorials on the fence at the corner of Holmberg Road and Coral Springs Drive.

"When we heard what the players were doing," Fred Guttenberg said, "we drove right over."

At the appointed hour, Matthew Horowitz gave a short speech explaining what he and his teammates were about to do to honor the 17. They slipped the medals over their heads and placed them on the memorials.

"There were smiles and tears and some clapping," he said. "We all had mixed emotions. How could we be happy about a hockey game when one of the medals was for Jesse's sister and another one was for Joaquin Oliver, who came to almost all our games to cheer us on?"

Think of it. Seventeen high school kids win two big hockey games against all odds, drive two hours back to school to revisit the worst day of their lives, then willingly, thoughtfully, give up what they fought so hard to win.

What did Matthew Horowitz do when he finally got home that night? "I went to bed and broke down in tears."

The Miami Herald's story about the state championship started off this way: "It wasn't the Stanley Cup, but it probably felt like it for the Stoneman Douglas ice hockey team."

Prescient, in a way. After the Eagles lifted the Cup a week later, they had to prepare for nationals, where they will be an object of attention. But things kept popping up. Like the league banquet last week, when LaForge was named Coach of the Year, Bonnie Hauptman was named Manager of the Year, and the league announced that they were buying new medals for the 17 Stoneman Douglas players.

LaForge finally got them on the ice this past Friday for a scrimmage at the Panthers' IceDen against a showcase team of high school juniors and seniors. It did not go particularly well, as LaForge scowled at the in-fighting and lack of effort in an 8-3 loss. He told them in no uncertain terms that they could not play that way and expect to beat Regis Jesuit (Colorado) Thursday at 3 p.m. CT, or Edina (Minnesota) Friday at 8:45 a.m., or Lake Central, (Indiana) Saturday at 5 p.m.

But two days later, a freshly shaven LaForge was smiling again. "I was mad at them after that Saturday at states, too. But I love these kids. There's one misperception I want to correct about winning that championship. People are calling it another Miracle on Ice, they're saying that we had 17 angels sitting on their shoulders.

"I get that sentiment. But that wasn't a miracle. That was 17 remarkable kids finding out what they had inside. That was all them."