It was a cold morning in March 2004, and Cory Schneider was waiting for a bus. The bus was coming to pick up Schneider and his Phillips Academy (Mass.) teammates to take them to the New England prep hockey semifinal game.
Schneider, who is now the No. 1 goalie for the New Jersey Devils, had carried his team to the semifinals, dragged them really. Phillips Academy, also known as Andover, was an elite prep school, better known for its National Merit Scholars than for its hockey program. But they had Schneider, who had just finished one of the greatest seasons ever for a high school goalie.
The team was heading up to the Salem Icenter to take on the 1-seeded Avon Old Farms school, a team stocked with talent, going four lines deep of guys who were all expected to play college hockey. Andover knew from its scouting report that Avon was deep and athletic, loaded with good skaters.
Schneider and Andover didn’t know much about the goalie in the other net, though. He wasn’t even a part of the scouting report, as far as anyone on the team can remember. He was a junior, and his name was Jonathan Quick.
The Andover team arrived and started warming up on the ice to an empty rink. Some of the players who’d never been there were surprised by the Olympic-sized sheet of ice. Andover’s coach knew the massive rink would favor Avon.
But Andover had Schneider, and they knew that gave them a chance.
Schneider had been sensational that year for Andover. The team had some talent — one of their forwards, Kyle Kucharski, would go on to win a national championship at Boston College, and stars Steve Rolecek, Mike Foley, Hunter Thunell and Jed McDonald would all play at top college programs. But they were young, and they had little depth. The team relied on Schneider to keep them in games they had no business being in.
And he did.
Schneider was otherworldly his senior year. He faced 780 shots in 24 starts that year, allowing only 33 goals for a jaw-dropping .958 save percentage, best in New England preps by a large margin.
“One of my favorite memories of that season was when Coach Boylan tried to inspire us late in the year by showing us a scene from Seabiscuit,” said Ben Hoerner, a third-liner on Andover who’s now an attorney in Boston. “It’s that scene where Seabiscuit is trailing the other horse, but then he makes a late surge, and the jockey says ‘So long, Charlie’ as he pulls away. It was supposed to inspire us to never give up and make a big charge at the title.” He starts laughing. “But the joke in the locker room after we watched it was that coach should have Photoshopped Cory’s face onto Seabiscuit, because we were all just riding him.”
Despite facing tons of shots every night, and losing some tight games, Schneider never got upset at his teammates.
“He was never frustrated by the fact that he got a lot of shots,” said Rolecek, who now works in finance and lives in Boston. “Or he never showed it. He was probably frustrated in games where he made 50 saves and we’d lose 1-0. But he wouldn’t show it outwardly. He wasn’t like that.”
“Cory was the greatest guy,” said Hoerner. “He was quiet. Goalies have a reputation as being weird guys, but Cory wasn’t weird. He was just a little more introverted than other guys on the team. Cory never got frustrated, never said anything. It was the coaches who would be like, ‘Hey guys, we can’t just keep having Cory make 50 saves every game.’”
He was one of the hottest young goalkeeping prospects in the country and mastered at a young age the butterfly style that was becoming more prominent in hockey. Schneider would go on to be drafted 26th overall by the Vancouver Canucks, where he would serve as a backup to Roberto Luongo, then a starter, then a backup again, before being traded to become the franchise goalie for the Devils.
On that afternoon in Salem, he didn’t know any of that yet. He just knew he had to do everything he could to keep the puck out of the net.
“It was a different kind of pressure back then [at Andover],” Schneider said. “I could almost play loose because I knew I was facing 50 shots that night, and if we lost 2-1, I knew it was OK. Then when I went on to Boston College, I might only face 15 shots in a night, but we better win. It was a different mentality.”
Over on the other side of the ice, Quick was getting ready.
Quick was a prospect, to be sure, but didn’t have the pedigree of Schneider, or the hype. He had had a strong but uneven junior year. He also could be prone to moments where he lost focus.
“I remember it was a Saturday morning and we were playing Berskhire [Academy] up at Berkshire, and Quick had a bad day,” remembers John Gardner, head coach at Avon Old Farms. “And I looked at one of the guys on the bench and said ‘What the hell’s wrong with Quickie today?’ And he goes, ‘Coach, he took the SATs today. Then he ran out and had to make the bus. He didn’t do well, either.’ And I said ‘Well make sure he never takes those goddamn SATs again.’”
Quick was great that year, allowing 36 goals on 517 shots he faced, for a very strong .930 save percentage. He just wasn’t Schneider.
The two goalies’ personalities were different, as well. Even as a teenager, Schneider was serious and soft-spoken. According to his teammates, Jon (as he was known then) was more of a cut-up. While he was all business on the ice, Quick was known as a comedian in the locker room.
The game was big for both teams, but the Avon guys wanted to show everyone that their goalie was just as good as Schneider.
“Cory was a little more highly touted at the time,” said Sean Backman, a forward for Avon who now plays for the Manchester Monarchs in the AHL. “And Jonathan wanted to compete against a guy like that. He was always such a strong competitor.”
Quick downplays how much of a motivating factor the matchup was. “I was aware of him. He had been one of the best goalies in the league for a few years at that point,” Quick said in an email. “I knew he wasn’t trying to score on me.”
The game didn’t start out well for Quick. Just 43 seconds in, Rolecek scored on a broken play in front of the net. The goal stunned the higher-seeded Avon team, and the crowd, which was predominately from Avon. Andover, which had finals the next week, had sent one bus of kids up to the game. Avon seemed to send the entire school. Most of the school’s 400 boys attended the game, many of them shirtless, all of them screaming.
“Our school was always great when it came to supporting our sports teams, it didn’t matter what sport it was, and hockey was no exception,” said Quick. “It’s a very tight knit community and it was always fun playing with their support.”
Andover had the lead, but the feeling was that they scored too early. Avon regrouped, and then they went to work.
Led by a loaded junior class that featured Backman, Augie Dimarzo, and Chris Davis, Avon kept dumping the puck in and letting their faster skaters beat the Andover defenders time and time again. The Avon team wasn’t known for their skill but for their size—or lack thereof. Dimarzo was 5-8, Backman 5-9 and Davis was the big man of the trio, at 5-10.
“They were small for a New England prep school team. It’s usually teams that are bigger in size,” said Hoerner. “But they were small, fast and good. We weren’t used to seeing a team like that. And on that big open ice, we just couldn’t keep up.”
The entire Avon team could skate and they could skate well.
“They had three or four lines that had been rolling,” said Andover coach Dean Boylan. “And we were really playing mainly two lines. They just wore us down.”
After equalizing, the Avon team kept the goals pouring in, and soon built up a 3-1 lead. The loud Avon crowd was raucous. They directed most of their vitriol at Schneider, and the call of “Over-rated” echoed off the Icenter rafters for much of the third period.
“The size of that ice, it just kills you,” said Kucharski, who now works in finance in New York City. “You need to be able to run three or four lines to survive, and we went with two. It was a two period game, really. In the third they were running out the clock. By the end it felt like I was skating in sand.”
Avon wound up winning 4-1, then would go on to win the championship game the following week against Tabor Academy, a great end to a near perfect season. A few years later, Quick would develop into one of the best goalies in the country in his time at UMass Amherst, then would go on to win two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings.
For Schneider and the other Andover players, they feel good about the way their season ended.
“With our team, that’s how we were built,” Schneider said. “I told myself: We are what we are. I knew I was going to have a big night a lot of nights. And that’s fine. I like that responsibility. And we made it farther that year, I think, than we thought we would. We had to be happy with how hard we worked and how far we got.”
Josh Peter contributed reporting to this story. All stats via U.S. Hockey Report.