High school teams set for 'Greatest Game Never Played'
On a Friday in 1989, before the biggest hockey game of his life, James Olsen walked into his school gym expecting a pep rally.
He'd waited months for this moment. The Delbarton School senior played for one of two powerhouse hockey teams set to compete the next day for the New Jersey high-school championship. Delbarton and St. Joseph Regional High School, known as St. Joe's, boasted athletes who would play in college and eventually go pro. Ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the state, the teams hadn't faced each other all season. Neither group of players had ever won a state crown.
The 1989 squads never got their shot. Mr. Olsen stepped into the gym and was hit with a reality check: A measles outbreak at Delbarton forced officials to cancel the game. It was never rescheduled.
The New Jersey teams dubbed it "the greatest game never played." For the next 20 years, the decision would weigh on the players, who always wondered if they could have been champions.
On April 3, that weight will be lifted. Virtually every player and coach from the 1989 teams will finally face off at the same Morristown arena where the title contest would have taken place. Players, some of whom haven't talked to one another in more than 20 years, are coming from California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Massachusetts and Maine to compete and raise money for charity.
"Everybody still talks about that game," said St. Joe's star center, Ken Blum, later drafted by the former Minnesota North Stars. "Everybody."
Core groups from each team have been practicing weekly for more than a month, some since December. Individual players around the country have picked up their training or found teams, some hitting the ice for the first time since high school.
Local members of the Delbarton squad are scrimmaging at their old outdoor high school rink, running drills with their original coaches at 5 a.m., watching the sun rise over the rink for the first time in decades—and then heading into the office.
"Many of us are taking it very seriously," said Mr. Olsen, 38 years old, at a recent New Jersey Devils' game, where members of both high school teams had come together to reconnect—and subtly check out the competition.
The reunion was sparked by an article in the Newark Star-Ledger commemorating the 20th anniversary of the scheduled game. A St. Joe's team member, Scott Williams, whose mother has brain cancer, read the article and thought finally playing the game could help raise money for a charity he started. Mr. Williams contacted Delbarton's Mr. Olsen, who could relate: His father had died of brain cancer several years earlier.
Through connections on Facebook, alumni networks, and long-term friendships, word of the rematch spread. Now, 34 out of the original 42 players have agreed to play. Gatorade has signed on as a sponsor.
Through contacts at the National Hockey League, the teams have gotten jerseys and other items signed by NHL players Sidney Crosby, Martin Brodeur and Alex Ovechkin and linked the event with the league's charity, Hockey Fights Cancer.
The teams hope to sell more than 2,000 tickets. Already, 400 have been sold and another 250 or so given away.
The teams hope to raise more than $100,000 that will go to Mr. Williams' charity, Jam for Janice, as well as the NHL cancer charity, the Valerie Fund, and the teams' respective schools.
Back in 1989, St. Joe's and Delbarton regularly sold out their games, sometimes in arenas of more than 2,000 seats. St. Joe's traveled to compete in Switzerland; Delbarton tested itself against teams in Massachusetts. Players saw their names in the local sports pages daily.
The two teams had clashed in the semifinals each of the two previous years, yielding one overtime victory by St. Joe's and a stunning comeback by Delbarton, which scored three goals in the final two minutes to win 6-5.
"This was the grudge match," said St. Joe's forward Dave Infantino, who recently started a youth hockey organization with former teammate Mr. Blum. "Delbarton was more smart kids, shirt-and-tie type of players. We were the total opposite. We were very blue-collar, lunch-pail-type hockey players."
Mr. Olsen, whose alarm clock went off at 3:40 every morning so he could get to the outdoor practice rink by 5:45, still shakes his head at the memory of learning the answer would never come. "It was surreal," he said.
The night the game was canceled, the dazed Delbarton team members gathered at their hangout, an Italian place called Pistilli's. Junior forward Jonathan Mortenson bowed his head, staring down at the table. He reached down and tore a corner off the white paper place mat, stuffing it into his wallet.
Over the years, whenever something went wrong, he would pull out the crumpled edge of paper and remind himself: "I might feel really bad now, but there's no way I feel as bad as I did that day."
A middle-aged rematch won't resolve lingering questions of what might have been. But that hasn't stopped the players from rigorously preparing.
By 8 a.m. on a recent bleak Sunday, a group of players in dark green Delbarton alumni shirts were gathered inside a chilly practice rink at the Mennen Arena in Morristown.
Grunting as they sliced up and down the ice, the players admitted they were slower than they had been 20 years ago, their shots slightly awry, their passes sometimes askew.
Some things stayed the same. Jason Waite's father drove him to the rink that day. Mike Crutchlow's dad sat in the stands, cheering on his son for the first time in 20 years.
Players who hadn't laced up skates and donned gear since high school are scrambling to get in shape and back on the ice.
To protect the aging players, aggressive body contact won't be allowed.
But that hasn't stopped members of both teams from preparing for anything.
John Lively from St. Joe's canceled his family vacation to Florida when he realized it would be the week before the game.
In Massachusetts, Delbarton's Derek Maguire, who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens and is now a director for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, started doing drills with his children's hockey teams. Teammate Peter Ramsey stole time from his vacation with his family in Florida to hit the gym.
"We're 38 to 40 years old," said Mr. Maguire, who will be inducted into the New Jersey High School Hockey Hall of Fame on March 28. "But you never lose that competitive spirit and you never lose the desire to win."