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Back-to-back champion BFA-St. Albans holds onto top billing after another title, but who else will join the Bobwhites in the final top 10 of the winter?
FREE PRESS STAFF

The simple, inescapable fact about Spaulding boys hockey captain Denver Heath: He had the Crimson Tide pumping through his veins.

What’s more, it adds a certain poetic thread to the squad’s run to the Division I final.

The heart of the Tide, the player coaches wanted in the game as much as possible, the one who never wanted to come off the ice, loved Spaulding hockey about as much as anything in the world.

“It meant so much. I grew up going to like every game Spaulding played. Since the sixth grade on, I didn’t miss a single game,” Heath said. “Those are the guys I looked up to and once I finally got the chance to play for Spaulding I never wanted it to end.”

Like all things, however, the four-year ride concluded, but not before Heath and the Crimson Tide stretched the season to the last possible day and the senior center left an impact worthy of being named the Free Press’ Mr. Hockey, an honor given each year to the state’s top player.

“He’s just the best leader I’ve ever had,” Spaulding coach Clay Bell said. “If you traded Denver out with any other player in the league, would we even be close to reaching the state championship game?”

Cracking the career 100-point mark midway through his final campaign for Spaulding, Heath ended the year with 16 goals and 30 assists to fuel the program’s 18-3-2 winter — its best record since 1973.

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Heath is the second Spaulding player to earn the accolade. Keith Maurice also earned the honor in 1997.

“He’s a worker bee,” Bell said. “There’s no quit, no stopping in that kid. I guarantee there’s not a kid that’s blocked more shots, distributed and taken more hits than Denver Heath.

“He’s just an incredible, incredible kid and leader.”

Along the way, Heath’s ability to produce against the state’s toughest squads earned him a reputation as a “tenacious” competitor, according to Champlain Valley coach Mike Murray. Even when squads geared up to stop him, he managed to create for himself or set up teammates like wingman Brad Romeo (27 goals).

“They won all year long …. he got his team to the final,” Murray said. “For me Mr. Hockey needs to show up when the chips were on the line.”

With Heath pulling the strings — and sharing Metro Division player of the year honors with U-32’s Lucas Eldred — Spaulding made its first trip to the Division I state final since 2010.

Little coincidence, that clash at Gutterson Fieldhouse seven years ago, a 4-1 victory over Champlain Valley and the school’s last title in any sport, was one of the games that sent the future Crimson Tide star head-over-heels for the team.

“Watching them win the state championship, that’s all I wanted to do for Spaulding, win a state championship,” Heath said.

“Everybody says it’s a hockey community and that’s really true,” Heath said. “Just playing hockey for the Barre Blades, seeing the big crowds that Spaulding got…that’s one of my favorite parts about it. Playing for Spaulding was something I had to do.”

By the end of a year that included four games against eventual state champion BFA-St. Albans and three against perennial powerhouse Essex, there was little that Heath didn’t do for his club.

Center the first line? Sure. Kill off penalties? Sure. Fill in on defense when injuries struck? You bet.

“I loved it. I’ll take up as much ice time as I can get,” Heath said. “You can ask Clay, he’d have to yell for me to get off the ice. I wanted to be out there every second of every shift.”

PAST MR. HOCKEYS
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Mr. Hockey: Essex’s Erik Short
Mr. Hockey: Colchester’s Matty Cuce

But central to Spaulding’s survival was a prolific relationship forged in a backyard rink in Barre.

Heath and Romeo bonded as rookies on the latter’s home ice, honing their skills and building a connection that produced 93 points this season, part of a full-circle resurgence for the Crimson Tide after a four-win campaign when the pair were freshmen.

“He’s one of the hardest workers on the team, if not he hardest,” Heath said of Romeo. “He had to have shot a million pucks the summer of my freshman year. He built a rink in his backyard and me and him spent every hour we possibly could — they put a light out there, we used car headlights — pretty much every day.

“Without him I would not have had as many points as I did. He fed me a ton and he was able to bury a lot of stuff I gave him.”

And yet even before Heath suited up for the Crimson Tide at the venerable B.O.R. — his favorite rink, its arched roof bouncing only amplifying the noise — he had goals for his Spaulding career. The bullet points: Make second line as a rookie, reach 100 points, earn the title of Mr. Hockey and, most importantly, bring home a state crown.

Only the last one eluded him, but not without memories to last a lifetime.

“Coming out to all the fans just going insane for us … once they started announcing the lineups, the fans went crazy again … that’s just something I’ll never forget. It was insane,” Heath said. “I’ll give it to BFA. At the end of the day they were just deeper than us. hat game, they were the better team (but) I can live with that.”

Contact Austin Danforth at 651-4851 or edanforth@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @eadanforth.

2017: Denver Heath, Spaulding

2016: Matt Needleman, BFA-St. Albans

2015: Erik Short, Essex

2014: Matty Cuce, Colchester

2013: Tommy Royer, South Burlington

2012: Mike Schreiner, BFA-St. Albans

2011: Robbie Dobrowski, Champlain Valley

2010: Jake Orr, Essex

2009: Trevor Pollock, Burr and Burton

2008: Ben Pearl, Essex

2007: Jason Olson, Rutland

2006: Mark Collins, BFA-St. Albans

2005: Brendan Van Tuinen, Harwood

2004: Brett Leonard, South Burlington

2003: Ryan Van Schoick, Hartford

2002: Jon Day, Champlain Valley

2001: Joe Galdi, Essex

2000: Marc Russell, Essex

1999: Lou DiMasi, Burlington

1998: Ben Letourneau, Burlington

1997: Keith Maurice, Spaulding

1996: Lee Godbout, Colchester

1995: Luke Davignon, Rice

1994: Mike Bay, Rice

1993: Justin Martin, Essex

1992: Kyle Lanfear, BFA-St. Albans