Humble Quick the pride of his hometown

From Newark, NJ, take Interstate 95 north to Connecticut Highway 8. Then hop on Connecticut Highway 15 north. About 50 miles east of the New York-Connecticut border, you’ll hit Exit 61 for Whitney Avenue, downtown Hamden.

Hang a right on Whitney and head up the road about a mile. Keep a look out on your left. Eventually you’ll stumble upon Rainbow Cleaners, an unassuming, decades-old business owned by Hamden High School hockey coach Bill Verneris, a former star forward at nearby Quinnipiac University.

Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick grew up around the corner and used to work there.

“I worked there for a bit; (Verneris) let me get away with a lot,” Quick said. “I was employed there; I didn’t really do too much work.”

Now, 10 years after leaving Hamden, his family, his friends and Rainbow Cleaners behind, Quick is back on the East Coast, playing for a Stanley Cup in a crease opposite New Jersey Devils legend Martin Brodeur, perhaps the greatest goaltender in NHL history.

And back at the cleaners where he once worked-but-didn’t, Quick’s name is on the marquee:

“Good Luck Jon Quick LA Kings.”

A “local boy done good,” as Hamden mayor Scott Jackson calls him, Quick is the best hockey player this hockey town six miles north of New Haven has ever seen, and a championship would mean the world to a community that is all too eager to claim the next great American goaltender — or, perhaps, the next great goaltender, period — as its own.

Eighty miles away at the Prudential Center in Newark, Quick got off to a good start, having made 17 saves Wednesday in the Kings’ 2-1 overtime victory that gave them a 1-0 series lead.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Harry Richetelle, an 82-year-old former firefighter and lifelong resident of Hamden. “To come from this little town in the little state of Connecticut, that’s pretty good. It’s a real honor to have someone from here do what he’s done.”

Quick’s hockey career truly started in earnest at Hamden High School, at the south end of town, closer to Exit 60 off CT-15. It was here that Quick, a sophomore in 2001, made an indelible impression on the new Dragons head coach Verneris, who was forced to make one of the toughest calls of his 25-year coaching career.

See, Verneris already had a talented, experienced goalie in net, senior Chris Groleau, a Hartford Courant all-state honorable mention selection as a junior, and Groleau had lost his father over the summer to a heart attack. But Verneris also had this relative unknown named Quick, and there was something about that 15-year-old “rascal,” as the coach calls him, that he couldn’t quite shake.

Verneris knew talent, and Quick had it, so he made the impossibly difficult and unsentimental call.

“I just remember when I announced the starting goalie and he was sitting here and Groleau was sitting there, and I said, ‘Quicky, you’re in the net,’ and I just remember the enthusiasm — a young kid who goes, ‘Yes!’ — I just remember that,” Verneris said. “And I remember while I saw the excitement, on the other end, I saw a kid put his head down.

“There’s a kid, my first year coaching, his senior year, representing this town, which is what you live for. He’s got D-A-D on the back of his mask, and Johnny beat him out. All at once I captured both sides of emotion.”

Tough as that day was, handing the job to Quick turned out to be the right choice. Quick developed his skills faster than expected over the course of the season, seasoning the butterfly style for which he’s now known. He dominated in the crease during games and took shot after relentless shot from assistant coach Todd Hall, a Hamden grad, former New York Rangers draft pick and one-time Calder Cup winner with the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack.

Quick left Hamden the following year to go play at Avon Old Farms, a prestigious prep school about 35 miles to the north, but in one year at Hamden, he took on the blue-collar personality that embodies this entire town, leaving a deep-rooted impact on a community that still lights up at the sound of his name.

“That’s why Hamden hockey is Hamden hockey,” Verneris said. “We’ve got more state titles than any school in the state. The history of our town goes back to 1930; New England champions in the ’50s; state champions all through the ’60s, the ’70s.

“This is what we live for. The foundation for loving hockey comes from living in this town. It’s that passion, that love the kids have for the game, and Johnny is representative of what Hamden hockey is.”

Quick sat down at podium No. 7 in the Prudential Center main concourse shortly after 2 p.m. Tuesday and immediately asked how long his media session would be expected to last. “Until about 2:25,” an NHL handler told him, to which he wryly replied, “That’s a lot of questions.”

Slinked down in his chair, his black Kings hat pulled down to his eyebrows and the hood of his sweater pulled over his head, Quick didn’t have the look of a guy who wanted to be there, and maybe that comes with good reason.

“I don’t, to be honest, really enjoy this,” Quick said. “When I think of the Finals, I don’t think of being here in front of you guys. I think of going to play a hockey game at the highest level, and that’s all.”

The experience wasn’t nerve-wracking, and his demeanor wasn’t unpleasant, as he occasionally cracked a smile from behind the reddish playoff beard that, while full, almost looks scraggly up against some of his more hirsute teammates.

Quick just looked and sounded distracted. Safe to say, he had other things on his mind.

“He’s very, very focused right now,” said his mother, Lisa Quick. “He is a quiet guy, but not quiet to the extreme that you saw. He’s in a focused mode, and that’s great. That’s how it should be.”

And that’s how he’s always been.

“This whole entire family is competitive,” she continued, referring to Jon; his father, Doug; his two brothers, Justin (29) and Joey (18); and his 20-year-old sister, Jessica. “Whether it’s playing board games in the kitchen at night, or playing Wiffle ball outside or playing street hockey. Everything he plays, he plays competitive; he plays to win.”

Verneris saw plenty of that fire while Quick was at Hamden, especially when he took shots from the former pro Hall, though at the time, Quick’s energy wasn’t quite as dialed-in as it is now.

“Whether it was practice, or wherever, Johnny didn’t want you to score; he had an insatiable competitiveness that he didn’t like it when people scored on him,” Verneris said. “It was kind of fun, because during practice we’d have a lot of showdowns, and at the end of the showdowns, Todd would jump in.

“Usually, it was Todd against Jon. The whole team lines up, 10 kids on each side, and here comes Todd, and Johnny loved that. He loved that, and if Todd scored, oh, he’d get pissed, and if he stopped Todd, he’d go nuts.”

Lisa and Doug Quick always knew their son had the talent to become a hockey star, but then again, what parent doesn’t?

“Of course, everybody thinks their kid is something special on the ice,” Lisa Quick said. “Growing up, everyone thought they had the next NHL player, but he was always very dedicated, he always had a very natural athletic ability, and we knew it was going to take him somewhere at some point.”

The first place it took Quick was Avon, where he played his junior and senior seasons under legendary coach John Gardner, who just this past winter completed his 37th year at the head of the hockey program and has 632 career wins.

But at the time, the choice to leave home was anything but easy for Quick, a 16-year-old unsure what his future held for him.

“He made the decision on his own; it was a very difficult decision for him,” Lisa Quick said. “We didn’t want to persuade him in one direction. The cards were laid out and he knew what he had in front of him as far as going to Avon, and the exposure. Obviously playing at a prep school level, you’re being exposed to a lot more opportunities, but he was dedicated to Billy.”

Verneris, however, understood the benefits of Quick going to prep school — perhaps better than Quick himself did — and would hear nothing of having him stay in Hamden with so much opportunity, both athletically and academically, at his disposal elsewhere.

“It’s a hard decision to make, but you’ve got to do what’s right for the kid,” Verneris said. “If I have a player that’s very skilled, I’d love to keep him. I’d love to add more state titles, but if a prep school comes up and says, ‘We’ll give you $50,000, we’ll give you aid, we’ll take care of your education,’ I’ll kick the kid out. I’ll tell him, ‘Look, you’ve got to go.’

“There are high school coaches who hate prep school coaches because they steal their players, but they’re not thinking the right way. They’re being selfish, which is easy to do when you’re trying to win.”

Once at Avon, Quick and Gardner did lots of winning. In fact, they rarely lost. In his two years at the school, Quick compiled a 45-3 record in net with 11 shutouts, amassing a 1.19 goals-against average over 48 appearances as he led the school to two straight New England prep school championships.

It was between his junior and senior seasons when Quick made the biggest jump under Gardner, learning to harness that unbridled competitiveness and use it to make himself a better hockey player.

“We had won the New England prep school championship, he was feeling pretty good about himself, but I called him in and I said, ‘I know you had a pretty good year, but the rap on you is that you give up one bad goal, one soft goal, and then you really start playing,’ and you could see that that really burned him,” Gardner said. “So the next year we wound up winning the whole thing again. He had nine or 10 shutouts — and they weren’t rocking-chair shutouts, they were legitimate, great games.

“So after the (championship) game, he came up to me, and said, ‘Any bad goals today, coach?’ and I said, ‘No bad goals, Quicky. Good job.’ But you could tell that that had really frosted his butt, and as a competitor, he wanted to eliminate that from his reputation.”

Eventually, the widespread exposure he received in Avon led to an opportunity for Quick to play for the University of Massachusetts, and after two years there he was drafted in the third round by the Kings, a path no one — except maybe his parents — saw coming.

“You never can predict the future,” Gardner said. “I thought he had a chance to be a good Division I college goalie, and depending on how he developed, I thought maybe he could play in the pros, but no one could have foreseen this. I would have never predicted it, but it’s great.”

Now one of three goalies announced as finalists for the Vezina Trophy, along with the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, Quick, 26, is coming off a career year, with a 1.95 GAA and 10 shutouts in 69 regular-season games for the Kings.

Once in the playoffs — as a No. 8 seed, which LA secured on the heels of its goalie’s outstanding play — Quick emerged as the best in the West, holding the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the conference to just 22 goals in 14 games, stopping 94.6 percent of shots as Los Angeles has blazed a trail to the Stanley Cup Final with a 12-2 postseason record before beating the Devils 2-1 in overtime in Game 1.

“When he was going to play at UMass-Amherst, I said, ‘You’ve got great potential, you’ve got everything going for you, and the only person who can stop you is you,’ ” Gardner recalled. “I knew him pretty well, and I knew I was right.”

For a state that’s as hockey-crazed as it is, Connecticut has hardly been a hotbed for top-tier NHL talent. However, there have been a few to break through the glass ceiling.

Former Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch of Cheshire, the next town over from Hamden, is a Hall of Famer, considered by some to be the best American to play the game. He’s certainly the best Connecticut has ever seen, and his No. 2 hangs in the rafters at Madison Square Garden, where he won a Cup in 1994.

Chris Drury played nearly 900 games with four NHL teams and won a Stanley Cup with Colorado, and Craig Janney had 751 points in 760 career games with seven different teams. Chris Clark and Ron Hainsey are both Connecticut natives — Clark from South Windsor, Hainesy from Bolton — and have played in at least 500 career games apiece, and Darien’s Ryan Shannon won a Cup with the Ducks in 2007.

But that’s about where the roll call of Connecticut stars ends, and in Hamden, they’ve never seen a hometown kid find that kind of success — at least not until now.

“You had a slew of Division I kids (from Hamden) . . . and a slew of kids of who have gotten drafted and gone on, but nothing to this extent,” Verneris said. “This is it — this is our Brian Leetch.”

The impact that the success of a guy like Quick has on a town and a state is hard to quantify, but if you pay a visit, it’s tough to miss. You can feel the excitement in the sticky, late-May air. You can count the Kings hats at the Memorial Day Parade as the antique fire trucks and little league baseball teams march down Dixwell Avenue.

People in Hamden know Jon Quick, and it does the whole town well to see him excel.

“This town is a hockey town, and to have a home-grown product from Hamden, it’s just fantastic,” said 60-year-old John Northrup, a Hamden resident for 25 years. “He did the juniors here, he did the midgets here, and to come through here and actually produce, I think it’s great for the kids who are playing hockey now. It’s like, ‘Here’s a guy — he’s one of us. You could be the next Jonathan Quick yourself.’ ”

Indeed, Quick is a legend in the halls of Hamden High, and if you’re not with him, you’re against him.

“I was a Rangers fan to start off, but they got knocked off, so naturally, with Jon Quick being from Hamden, I’m going for the Kings all the way,” said 16-year-old Rob Martino, a lacrosse player at the school. “Anyone who’s not a Devils fan is a Kings fan here.”

One doesn’t even have to be a puckhead to hop on the bandwagon, though it’s filling up fast.

“Even the people who aren’t hockey fans are rallying around Jon,” said Jackson, the mayor. “Ernest Borgnine, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Scott Burrell, they’re all Hamden guys. We’ve had Nobel Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize winners . . . and now Jon.”

Jon. Johnny. Quicky. Jonathan. Everyone in Hamden seems to call Quick by a different name, but it doesn’t much matter. They’re all still talking about the same guy, and they’re doing lots of it.

“I’ve been following Hamden hockey since 1943, and I still go to the games,” Richetelle said. “Everybody’s talking now about Quick. All of us are like, ‘Hey, what did you think of Jon last night? He shut them out,’ this and that. It’s a little thrill, because I can say I saw him play.”

Quick is aware of the hype, and he’s true to his roots, to be sure. He still lives in Connecticut with his wife and daughter during the offseason, and if he wins the Cup, he’ll be certain to celebrate with his family and friends in Hamden this summer.

Right now, though, he’s not exactly sentimental about playing in the Final so close to home, and for the next two weeks, he’s simply out to win it for the Kings name on the front of his jersey.

“You carry a weight for your teammates,” Quick said. “That’s the weight you really carry. That’s who you’re playing for. Obviously it would be nice to go back to Hamden with something to show everybody, but you play for your teammates.”

Back near Rainbow Cleaners, LA Kings banners line the houses on Tanglewood Street — an odd sight, to be sure, in southwestern Connecticut — but you won’t find one hanging out in front of the Quick residence.

“We’re very superstitious,” Lisa Quick said. “A couple of my neighbors wanted to give me a flag, but I said no way. I haven’t had a flag up for the entire playoffs, so I’m not going to start now.”

The Cup will be busy if it makes its way back to Hamden. Mayor Jackson said he’d “absolutely” hold an event where the town will honor the accomplishment. It might also have to make a quick jaunt up to Avon for a visit and a beer with Gardner. Verneris would certainly like to take a picture with it at the same Rainbow Cleaners where Jon once worked.

“This is a pipe dream,” Verneris said. “This is hitting the lotto.”

If Jon can come up with three more wins, starting with Game 2 on Saturday, Doug Quick can finally shave off the playoff beard that has come to rival his son’s, and then maybe Lisa can finally hang one of those Kings flags out front.

Or better yet, maybe she’ll just put the Cup out there instead. It can’t possibly attract any more attention than Jon himself.

“Everybody in the neighborhood will come up and greet him and sit down and talk with him,” Lisa Quick said. “He’s just a hometown celebrity. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s just unbelievable. I get the goose bumps just thinking about it.”

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner