Amidst Adversity, Nantucket’s Boys Hockey Team Stood Together

David Creed •

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The Nantucket boys hockey team painted #2s on their chest before Wednesday's state quarterfinal in support of their teammate Braden Knapp, who was suspended for one year following the final regular season game. Photo by Chris Tran

The Nantucket boys hockey team’s season is over, as are the careers of their six senior players who helped the Whalers piece together the best three year stretch in program history – which included three straight trips to the MIAA Div. 4 state quarterfinal.

They end the year coming up short of their preseason goal of winning a state championship – fresh off the program’s first ever state semifinal appearance in March 2023, but walk away from the game and their program with something arguably more important: knowing they never broke apart.

As many know by now, senior forward Braden Knapp was suspended for one year following an incident on February 22 against the Sandwich Blue Knights where he shot a puck into a scrum at center ice. The suspension, first reported by the Current, has gained attention across the state and sparked a wide array of opinions. There were some who believed the suspension was deserved, while most claimed it was too harsh.

The suspension ended Knapp’s high school sports career. Had Knapp been a junior, he would be unable to play Golf next fall and would not have been able to return to play hockey until February 23, 2025.

Upon request, the Current received the letter sent from the MIAA to Knapp informing him that his suspension was upheld, as well as the statement read by Knapp during his appeal on February 29.

Knapp did not ask for his suspension to be eliminated, only to be reduced. He admitted fault and to hitting the puck out of frustration from losing but was adamant he would never try to hurt someone.

“I wasn’t trying to injure the referee or anyone else,” Knapp said. “I realize now I could have injured someone, and I am thankful that no one was hurt. It was a poor decision on my part in a momentary lapse of judgement. Obviously, I should not have done this and will be learning from this experience.”

Knapp being a first-time offender wasn’t enough for his suspension to be reduced. Three letters of recommendation speaking on his behalf weren’t enough. Knapp’s testimony wasn’t enough. Knapp apologizing to the referee after Gilbert Bach – the referee who called the violent assault of an official penalty – accused Knapp of hitting his partner was not enough. All indications are that a referee was not even hit and/or was not aware of being hit when approached by Knapp on the ice.

The Current reached out to Bach, who is a Sandwich High School hockey alum that played with Sandwich head coach Jordan Mohre and currently resides in Sandwich, via Facebook seeking comment but have not received a response.

The decision-makers in this situation were appointed by the MIAA and consisted of five of the 41 members affiliated with the MIAA’s Eligibility Appeals Board (EAB). They didn’t believe Knapp deserved a second chance despite a point being made by one of the board members (not involved in this particular decision) via Twitter (X) saying “many times in cases like this one, penalties are reduced or even eliminated based on the facts presented.”

Nothing presented was enough for Knapp’s situation to become one of the “many times” where suspensions are reduced or even eliminated. The MIAA and the members of the five-person committee have not explained why, and likely never will as they hide behind the excuse of confidentiality to neglect transparency.

The MIAA said in their letter to Knapp that they made their decision “based on the evidence presented at the hearing and the documents submitted during the appeal process.” They did not cite any of this evidence or highlight a particular testimony that convinced them Knapp was determined to injure a referee that day despite Knapp telling them that wasn’t his intent at all.

The MIAA was vague when describing what was considered in the letter but mentioned the presentations of NHS principal Mandy Vasil, athletic director Travis Lombardi, head coach Jack Moran, Knapp, and “the official’s perspective.”

“The Board determined that Braden purposely shot a puck directly towards the MIAA hockey official who was attempting to break up a separate incident at the conclusion of the game,” MIAA assistant executive director Phil Napolitano said in the letter. “Braden’s actions were deliberate, dangerous, and a clear violation of MIAA rules.”

The letter didn’t stop there. Napolitano then felt the need to pile on and explain to Knapp that he should know a one-year suspension is very rare and unique for an MIAA athlete to serve.

“The Board would like to reiterate that the MIAA has over 230,000 student athletes that participate in interscholastic athletics each year and very few ever receive a one-year suspension,” Napolitano said.

A Sandwich player was issued a fighting major in the fallout of that same sequence and was reportedly suspended two games – which is in line with the MIAA handbook’s section 49.3.6. We reached out to Sandwich Athletic Director Sean Donovan to confirm that number but have not received a reply. If true, that player was permitted to return for Sandwich’s state quarterfinal game against Dover-Sherborn, which the Blue Knights lost 2-1.

When Moran was approached by the Current asking if the officials informed him of Knapp’s suspension at the rink (which they are supposed to do under section 49.1.1 of the MIAA Handbook), he said he did not find out until the following day from Lombardi – which signals that Bach botched the protocol the MIAA calls for. Moran said he didn’t receive the game’s scoresheet until 30-40 minutes after the game when he sought out the scorekeeper himself.

Just one of the five committee members who voted to uphold Knapp’s suspension took time to respond to a request for comment – deferring to the MIAA. The MIAA has responded with a brief statement claiming concern for confidentiality and deferred all questions to the Nantucket school administration, which had nothing to do with the suspension handed out and upheld.

The Current reached out to the MIAA again Thursday morning asking if they had any further comment on the situation but has not received a reply.

Amidst all the drama, Knapp’s teammates entered the playoffs continuing to work towards their goal of winning a state title. They knew it would be far more difficult without their star forward, who was second on the team in points with 15 goals and 17 assists for 32 points in 20 games. While it remained a goal, a new one had emerged: be there for Braden.

The Whalers, ranked #2 in the Div. 4 state tournament, beat #31 St. John Paul II 6-3 in the Round of 32 and then fought off #15 seeded Bourne with two unanswered goals in the third period to come from behind and win 3-2.

In their game against Bourne, the Whalers wore #2 stickers on their helmets as a symbol to show Knapp they had his back and were playing for him. The gesture was mentioned in the original reporting on Twitter (X). Nantucket planned on wearing them in the state quarterfinal and for as long as they remained alive in the state tournament.

But the MIAA had different ideas. They demanded the Whalers remove the stickers from their helmets Tuesday afternoon. Nantucket players obliged and have listened to all of the MIAA’s orders.

The MIAA has their handbook, their rules, and their process for handling suspensions and player discipline. That process played out, and the end result was Knapp’s sports career being over and his high school sports experience ultimately ruined. They are justified in doing that to him under the rules and protocols they created – with no one to answer to. How they do things and what they say goes when it comes to high school sports in Massachusetts. Everyone has a right to determine for themselves whether it was right or wrong and should subsequently have a right to voice their support or displeasure with the ruling.

Heading into the Stoneham game, the Whalers wanted to represent Nantucket and Knapp to the best of their ability. They came up with a creative way to support Knapp when every coach and player painted a number two on their chest. Before the game, they took the team picture you saw at the top of this story.

But their luck ran out in the state quarterfinal. They went up against the #10 seeded Stoneham Spartans – fresh off a 6-0 beat down of #7 Wilmington in the Round of 16. Stoneham’s defense, toughness, and relentless forecheck wore down Nantucket. They executed head coach Paul Sacco’s gameplan perfectly. All of those factors led to Nantucket’s season coming to an end in the form of a 4-1 loss on Wednesday.

Sophomore winger Ben Freeman, who was replacing Knapp in Nantucket's top six forward group, went down with an injury midway through the second period – leaving Nantucket with five skaters in their regular forward rotation. Despite being significantly depleted, the Whalers put up a valiant effort. The game was a 1-0 contest through two periods. Senior captain Griffin Starr was sharp in net (no surprise).

The game changed when a puck tossed in front of the net hit a Whaler defenseman’s skate and ricocheted into the goal – making it a 2-0 game with 13:43 remaining in regulation. Stoneham made it 3-0 1:06 later and took a 4-0 lead with 6:29 to go. The Whalers didn’t score until sophomore forward Jeremy Jenkinson buried one with two seconds left.

Despite a frustrating end to their season, Nantucket did not commit one penalty the entire game while Stoneham had just two. It was a clean, hard fought hockey game where Stoneham walked away with the much-deserved victory. It happens.

Knapp admitted the last two weeks have been very difficult for him. He has never shied away from the fact he made a bad mistake. In the aftermath of the final ruling, Knapp could have walked away and stayed away from the team. He could have made a stink and sulked about the suspension publicly or to his teammates.

But he did the complete opposite.

Knapp participated in every team practice following the February 22 game. MIAA Handbook section 86.3 states an ineligible student can practice with the team if approved by the school administration, so Vasil and Lombardi were at least able to support Knapp with the little power/control they did have over the situation.

Knapp spent time helping the younger players such as Freeman get up to speed as he attempted to fill the void in the lineup left from his absence. Knapp attended every game, watched intently from the outside of the boards, provided support for his teammates between periods, and was the first to give them a fist pound as they left the locker room to take the ice at the beginning of each period.

Knapp was in attendance to watch everything unfold on Wednesday. As he walked back and forth between the locker room and the area along the boards where he watched the game, he could look up in the stands and see his fellow classmates and parents holding “2” signs and yelling his name.

The student section also brought “2” balloons to show Knapp support, but those were ordered to be taken down by the MIAA and rink workers. The explanation given to students was that the balloons were a fire hazard.

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After the game, Knapp greeted his teammates as they came off the ice. As they sat in the locker room attempting to process the reality their season was over, Knapp stood outside, picked up all of his teammate’s hockey sticks, and packed them up to save his team the burden.

The Whalers went into the season with one goal in mind and one goal only, and that was to win a state championship. Led by seniors Griffin Starr, Ryan Davis, Michael Culkins, Braden Knapp, Colby O’Keefe, and Hunter Strojny, the Whalers did not win the prize they set out for in December but pieced together another successful season to be proud of.

Knapp knew a deep tournament run was expected and acknowledged that to the committee during his appeal.

“In this moment of frustration and lack of judgement I let down my family, teammates, and coaches as well as the Town of Nantucket who are all hoping for a deep playoff run,” Knapp said. “I desperately would like the opportunity to make it up to them and prove to everyone that this was not a defining moment but one I will learn from going forward. I know I will be better at keeping my emotions in check in the future.”

Yes, the state title was something the team and island community was hoping for, but the Whalers may have come out of this season accomplishing something even more meaningful.

The Whalers walk away knowing they stuck together through the abundance highs and occasional lows. They left it all on the ice in their final game and embraced their season-ending defeat with grace, and despite those in power stripping away Knapp’s opportunity to ever play a high school sport again and prove a bad decision wasn’t symbolic of who he was – Knapp’s teammates found ways to show the state through their own actions that Braden Knapp isn’t the person the ruling portrays him to be and through their unbreakable support, sent a message to the MIAA they’re wrong to judge him by one mistake.

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Seniors from left to right: Griffin Starr, Braden Knapp, Hunter Strojny, Michael Culkins, Ryan Davis, and Colby O'Keefe. Photo by David Creed
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