Gerwig guides Darien boys hockey back to the top
Updated 11:06 am, Thursday, March 27, 2014
The human walls of Darien's defense are deteriorating. The Blue Wave, battered by body blows and rocketed rubber pucks for nearly two hours, stands tired, spent.
Today is the 2014 Division 1 boys hockey championship, and Darien, which held a 1-0 lead over most of the contest, can no longer escape the hunting, reigning champion Fairfield Prep in a tied game. As overtime progresses at New Haven's Ingalls Rink, the Jesuits fire shot after shot, each flying closer to victory than its predecessor. Bloodcurdling hollers are hurled from the stands, almost completing a picture of an active battlefield.
Then, it's over.
Vincent D'Amore launches a game-deciding blast from nearly 20 yards away that settles decisively inside the Blue Wave net. Ecstasy and agony simultaneously pour out from the opposing benches as part of a deafening scene. Next, the teams line up for one of the most time-honored traditions in all of sports and shake hands. At the end of the Darien line appears head coach Chris Gerwig.
Gerwig, standing at a sturdy 6-foot flat, gazes ahead with a look worn by years of peaks and valleys in the game of hockey.
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Now congratulating each youngster that contributed to the Blue Wave's downfall, the 2014 FCIAC coach of the year arrives at his counterpart, Prep's Matt Sather. Per Gerwig's insistence, he and Sather hold a longer embrace than any player or coach had to this point.
For in the face of his loss and the resulting, stinging pain, Gerwig wants to take time when commending the Jesuit headman on his team's performance. Despite his own club's lesser play on the state's biggest stage, he wants to share his appreciation for how Prep excelled. It doesn't matter that his personal pride, the robust Blue Wave defense, finally broke. In this moment, those facts are as important as the surrounding noise and bemoaning them would not be how one loses with class.
Respectful, honest, and focused.
This is Chris Gerwig. This is Chris Gerwig in defeat, victory, games and practice.
Those who are close to the 43-year-old speak to how he is this way both on and off the ice.
Those who know him only inside the rink would have no choice but to assume that's the case with the hockey-lifer, who couldn't find time this spring to even fill out a March Madness bracket.
Now, both the history books and a somber Darien lockerrom will later reflect a disappointing defeat on this day. That is the duty of history books and emotional nature of losing. What the annals of Connecticut boys high school hockey will fail to acknowledge, however, is all of the work that produced the Blue Wave's first state final berth in 24 years.
The steady hand that guided Darien to become the only public school to reach consecutive Division 1 semifinals in five years.
The strong, but humble leadership that has advanced a potent program one round further into the state tournament than it did the season prior for three straight seasons.
All of these are the result of Gerwig and the efforts of the players and coaches under him. Ask the headman, though, and he'll simply point to everyone else; his three assistants and his senior class of 11.
But they, just like Darien opponents, know it starts at the top.
"Chris has those guys exactly where they need to be," Sather said after his championship win. "They play so disciplined and it's hard to penetrate that defense. It has been all year."
In retrospect, it makes flawless sense that Gerwig first stepped onto the ice as a young defenseman. For, the principal task of a hockey defender is, of course, to stabilize. Keep the scoreboard at its scoreless status quo. And stability is the first pillar he has rebuilt the Darien boys hockey program upon.
At his hiring, Gerwig became the third different Blue Wave coach in four years. Yet despite the turmoil of earlier coaching turnover, Darien has managed to improve its regular season record each of the past three seasons. The Blue Wave comee at every opponent with the same, defensive-minded approach intent on wearing them down.
"You know, we've been together three years now and it takes a little bit of time," Gerwig said. "The boys had seen a few different styles. But it clicked in a little quicker than we thought which has been a tribute to the boys' hard work."
Perhaps no one has been afforded a better view of Gerwig's work and growth than Darien girls hockey coach Jamie Tropsa. Presently, the pair split time at Darien Ice Rink in the winter and work year-round together at Tropsa's hockey shop, Blue Line Sports, where Gerwig has been since 2001.
"I always respected him as a straightforward, honest guy that had a lot of pride in himself. And that's what he's trying to establish in that program," Tropsa said. "He's a great, great guy. He's really done a good job there and hopefully he's stays for a long time."
Decades ago, Tropsa watched Gerwig come through as a player in the PeeWee and Bantam ranks, when the youngster would also come to his store to buy skates. Later, akin to many coaches in the FCIAC ranks, Gerwig fought his first conference battles as a player. Over at Trinity Catholic, he was named team captain of the boys hockey team, then led by the legendary Mickey Lione.
"Mickey taught me a lot of the morals about life, about winning with class and losing with class," Gerwig said. "About respect for your opponents, teammates and the rink. I really learned a lot from him."
Following his high school graduation, Gerwig swapped his Crusader colors for the red, white and blue of New England College. Starting immediately for the Pilgrims, he kept his first-line spot in each year of his collegiate career, later captaining the team over his final two seasons. While New England's winning was never overwhelming, playing against the likes of Army, UConn and other ECAC foes, Gerwig learned much from head coach Tom Pratt.
After concluding his undergraduate career, when the stalwart defenseman headed both a fraternity house and the sports section of the school's newspaper, Pratt offered him an assistant position. Gerwig accepted the job and quickly developed into his former coach's right-hand man. Simultaneously, he ran the school's rink and took up work in admissions to support himself.
But, the beckon of home was too strong.
The youthful coach returned to Trinity Catholic, where he was named an assistant under Lione. In 1998, during Gerwig's third year, the Crusaders captured a state title, the last FCIAC team to have done so to this day. Unfortunately, Lione passed away one year later, and after four years alongside him on the bench, Gerwig soon took over for his former mentor.
Even on the cusp of turning 30, the longtime assistant felt prepared moving into his first stint as program leader.
"You always want to take a piece from every good coach you've had and that's one thing that I've done," Gerwig said. "You want to take things that really got through as a player and store them in your repertoire. I've really been blessed to have had so many good coaches as a player."
For the next 11 years, Gerwig taught the nuances of puck control, checking, team play and special teams at the same place he had learned in high school. While the Crusaders were never able to return to the state pinnacle, they did produce an 18-2 regular season campaign in 2009 that eventually ended one game away from a championship. Concurrently, the head coaching job at Darien opened up, but the idea of unfinished business stuck in Gerwig's head, grounding him at Trinity Catholic.
Two winters down the road, ones highlighted by 9-12-1 and 5-15 Crusader finishes, the Blue Wave job was posted once again. This time, Gerwig simply couldn't pass the opportunity up. The decision was described as one of the toughest he has ever faced, but the greater number of players Darien produced every year was too much to ignore.
"It was tough sometimes at Trinity, a small school, a private school and a school with two other high schools in town," Gerwig said. "(At Darien), guys always have to be looking over their shoulders. Having these numbers allows us to have some really great practices where everyone can improve, which has been a big thing."
Improvement shown right away, as the Blue Wave collected six more wins in the coach's debut season than it did over the final campaign of predecessor Larry Vieira. For his second act, Gerwig brought the Blue Wave all the way to the state semifinals. Yet, stepping onto a bigger stage doesn't dissolve all of one's problems. It simply replaces them.
Each one of Darien's most skilled high school athletes, including current Fairfield Prep goalie Chris Gutierrez, is at one time tempted to leave his or her hometown for private, preparatory schooling. In efforts to keep local talent, Gerwig keeps his message simple.
"We send a message that we're doing good things here and we want to make guys feel special," Gerwig said. "I'm trying to build this program into a contender every year and show kids you don't have to go away to play high level hockey."
Thus far, it's worked.
Seniors Tommy Watters and Michael Colon each earned All-State recognition this year, while fellow fourth-year players Nick Allam, Owen Koorbusch and Connor Davis helped garner a No. 1 state ranking for months.
Even against his old foes, Gerwig and his group can hardly avoid compliment.
"(Chris and I) always support each other, except when we're playing each other," current Trinity Catholic coach Ken Smith laughed. "We're good friends, we talk all the time and just have a really good relationship.
"Every player from one to 23 can skate. They're solid up and down the lineup and have a really good coaching staff. They're all smart and they're all skilled."
Today, the Darien boys hockey program not only hears from its fans and opposition, but players of past teams. Blue Wave captains from the `50s and `60s have reached out to Gerwig to share their pleasure with the state of the program and the number of people it draws regularly for home games.
Of course, naysayers will inevitably point to the same disappointing results that have dogged Darien's last few seasons. After all, prior to its 2-1 defeat in the state title game, the Blue Wave also dropped a heartbreaker in the FCIAC championship to rival New Canaan, 5-2.
But, this story is far from over. Gerwig plans to continue to busy himself by raising up Darien boys hockey, coaching youth teams in New Canaan and this summer, getting married. When approached about his staff, he will continue to heap praise on assistants Mac Budd, Mike Cioffi and Alex Kremer. Should any college call asking about one of his players, he will, as he always has, do the same for them.
And finally, when the time comes for someone to speak on his career, Gerwig only hopes that he is recognized not for the effort he put in for wins and losses, but for those around him.
"Hopefully they say he was someone who really poured his heart and soul into the sport, into his team and into his coaches," Gerwig said. "One thing I've always told my players is that if they call me at 2:30 a.m. with a problem with school or their girlfriends or whatever, I am there for them. My point is, if you give a lot, you're always going to get a lot back, and I've been very fortunate so far in my time at Darien."
And even though it's only been a short three years, one could argue that Darien boys hockey has been just as fortunate, if not more so, in its time with him.