for Montclair Local

Two years ago, the Montclair Kimberley Academy hockey team fought through a rough campaign, ending with an 0-16 record.

That whole season felt like a millennium ago to head coach Tim Cook and his 2021-22 team, which wrapped the year up on Feb. 22 when they fell to St. Joseph, 4-1, in the play-in round of the Non-Public state tournament.

While not the preferred outcome, Cook was very pleased with the Cougars’ season and their 9-5-3 record, as well as with how far they had come since that tough stretch in 2019-20. The team had come off a great 2018-19, having fallen just one point shy of the McInnis Cup, but saw the departure of several players, and their absence hit the team hard.

“So, we knew, coming off that year, the next year was going to be really rough,” Cook said during a recent phone call. “But our kids stuck with it, stayed positive, worked really hard, had fun and kept our program going.”

The 2020-21 season was truncated due to COVID-19, but the coach saw a lot of progress on the ice, and the Cougars finished the year 4-5 (2-3 NJIIHL-Kelly), making the semifinal round of the Kelly Cup. 

There were several factors contributing to the success of the last two years, including the emergence of the MKA middle-school program, something that didn’t exist six years ago when Cook arrived at the high school. 

More than anything, though, the coach praised the four seniors on this year’s team — Callum Reddington (3 goals, 6 assists), Cindy Hu, Michael Bronstein and Michael Caggiano — for sticking with the program.

“I’ve always had so much respect for people that stick through the tough times, especially when they may not get the most accolades or attention,” Cook said. “Those are the type of people that you can really build an impressive and resilient group around because you know they’re going to stick through the fire, right?”

The coach said there are always people in life who will show up and be enthusiastic when everything is good, but it’s the people who show up for the hard work when it needs to be done who can make or break any endeavor.

“It’s about the people who you’re, like, ‘I need you to do this. It’s not fun. It’s difficult. There’s going to be some pain, and you’re not going to get thanked for it by anybody except your teammates,’” Cook said. “And these four players really did that.”

He said each of the four brought something special to the table, even if they weren’t stars.

“There’s Michael Bronstein, who’s a four-year contributor, a captain, a great kid and great player,” Cook said. “Michael Caggiano, who’s only been playing hockey really for three or four years, but his improvement from where he started is awesome. And just the best kid, a smile on his face every time. So grateful to be on the team and to be in this group. He really helped our attitude, and when he gets out there in games, he would do exactly what you tell him to do to the best of his abilities.”

The coach said the MKA program has a proud tradition of having girls on the team as well, and senior Cindy Hu has been a tremendous addition to that. 

“Cindy will do exactly what you say,” he said. “You only need to tell her once, and she’ll do it every single time. She's a great angler, a really smart player who will move the puck well and take care of it.”

Last but certainly not least is Reddington.

“[He’s] another player who hasn’t been playing organized hockey for his whole life, but is really on an upward trajectory,” Cook said. “Cal scored a goal this year. He’s got a nice shot, big nose for the net, big rangy player and again, great, great in the locker room and as a team player.”

The coach said the four seniors are a big reason why MKA hockey still exists. 

“I just have so much respect for them as a group and as individuals,” he said. “You know, we’re really grateful because if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what would have happened three years ago. 

“I don't know if we would’ve had enough players. I don’t know if we would have had a team. And then if you lose the season, it’s very difficult [for a program] to come back, you know?”

Having a bad season is one thing, Cook said, but very few programs take a year off and then make it back.

“If you shut the program down for a year, it’s tough to build it back. So, I was really appreciative, and the team was very appreciative,” he said.

The four seniors are leaving a program that is not just surviving but looking very much like it will be thriving very soon.

The three players at the top of the team’s point totals are all sophomores. Sam Rotella (20 goals, 27 assists), Jack MacEvoy (18 goals, 23 assists) and Gary Hu (12 goals, 11 assists, Cindy Hu’s younger brother) will form the foundation of a team that looks ready to make some noise in the next few years. 

MKA sophomore Gary Hu, right, was named to the All-NJIIHL Kelly Division honorable mention list for this season. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
MKA sophomore Gary Hu, right, was named to the All-NJIIHL Kelly Division honorable mention list for this season. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)

Both Rotella and MacEvoy were named to the All-NJIIHL (New Jersey Interscholastic Ice Hockey League) Kelly Division second team. Junior Anthony Zhang (2 goals, 3 assists) and Gary Hu collected All-NJIIHL-Kelly honorable mentions. Add in freshmen like Henry McCann  (1 goal, 4 assists), Evan Koserowski  (3 assists) and Miles Bronson (1 goal, 5 assists), and the Cougars look like they are on the upswing.

And while youth is the order of the day at defense or forward, the team has three junior goalies, all of whom Cook said can start any day. 

Imanuel Pantow (108 saves), Robert Lombardi  (69  saves) and Aidan Meeker (96 saves) all got significant minutes this season, and all three saw action in the final game against St. Joseph. 

One thing Cook stresses, though, is that a season for the Cougars isn’t about wins or losses. 

“We really don’t talk about wins at all, [but] we always talk about the process,” he said. “You know, you take care of the things that you can control, and you’re going to have success more often than not.

“There's times when you deserve to lose and you win. And there’s times when you played really well and you get a couple of bounces against you, a couple of bad calls, somebody loses an edge, you lose. 

“These things happen, so you can’t control any of that. So don’t even try, just focus on, ‘Did I do everything I could do today to give my team a chance to win?’”

Cook said that is different with every player, and those who don’t touch the ice during a game have to be just as committed as those who play the most minutes.

“I think that those players are almost more important than the players who are playing every other shift because, you know, they’re just so crucial to the overall success and really the vibe, the attitude of the team,” the coach said.