Photography by Kit Noble
The day is Saturday, February 12, 2022, just after 4 p.m. The Whaler boys hockey team had just been thumped on their home ice by Bishop Stang 4-1. The defeat sunk Nantucket’s record to 5-7-2 on the year – leaving the team with more questions than answers with over half of their season gone by.
A deflated Whaler hockey club quickly made their way to the doors after the final buzzer, leaving the rink in a dull and desolate state.
But in the back right corner of the rink near the dressing room you could hear a thud over and over where one player remained: goalie Griffin Starr, a sophomore at that time, in a goalie position throwing a tennis ball off the wall.
“I think that game was a turnaround,” Starr said looking back at their loss to Bishop Stang. “After that we had a pretty good record. I always have had confidence in myself, but after that game I really put in a lot of extra time. I felt like that should have been a 1-1, 2-1 game but we got crushed in large part because of me. It was my first year starting and a bit of a wakeup call for me that this wasn’t going to be easy.”
Starr had let up a pair of goals to his glove side in that game. Frustrated with his performance, he began tossing the ball against the wall in an effort to get his mind right.
10 minutes go by.
Before you knew it, an hour had gone by.
Starr never moved.
The disappointment and gloom in Starr’s face was clear, but even more visible was the determination in the young goaltender's eyes to grow and get better from the experience.
I walked over to Starr. He briefly paused, clutched the tennis ball, looked to the ground, and then up at me.
“I’m never having a game like that again,” Starr told me before continuing his routine.
Starr was in the midst of his first season as the program’s starting goalie. He had big shoes to fill being the successor to James Culkins, who stood in the Whaler net for five seasons as their starter. The program had made one state quarterfinal since being founded in the late 2000s and Culkins was the man in net – as an eighth grader.
Goalie was one of the few question marks on that 2021-2022 team filled with experienced senior talent. To that point, the results had been disappointing and many questioned whether Nantucket could make any noise come playoff time.
“There was a lot of pressure. Those were some pretty big shoes to fill. He was a great goalie,” Starr said. “Going into that season, there were a lot of people talking down on us. People didn't think we were going to be that good and that was the first year with the new bracket, so no one really knew how that was going to go and no one really understood it, but it worked out pretty well.”
Starr’s next game was better, but still not to his satisfaction. After beating Martha’s Vineyard 4-1 on the Vineyard earlier that season, the Whalers lost the rematch 3-1 on February 16 and were suddenly 5-8-2 on the year with just three games left on their regular season schedule.
But Starr continued to take the extra time after games to work on his technique and his skills.
Nantucket rebounded against an inferior Monomoy team and beat them 9-1. Then they sailed over to the Cape to compete in the annual Jeff Hayes Tournament at the Gallo Arena. Starr played well in the tournament and helped his team tie North Reading 1-1 and Auburn 3-3 in those two games.
The Whalers finished their regular season 6-8-4. Very few gave them much of a chance to make any sort of run in the state tournament.
Their first game was at home against the #22 seeded Rockland Bulldogs. The Whalers, the #11 seed thanks to their strength of schedule, beat them 5-2 and Starr was sharp in his playoff debut.
In their Round of 16 matchup, the Whalers had to travel to the Vineyard, who were the #6 seed, to take on their island rival once again. Any optimism the Vineyard had that they would get the best of Starr for a second consecutive game quickly evaporated however. Starr was stellar from the opening puck drop and helped his team defeat the Vineyarders 2-1 in overtime.
“I think everyone was feeling really good after that one,” Starr said.
For the second time in program history, the Whalers had advanced to the state quarterfinal – this time on the back of Starr just three weeks after that Bishop Stang blowout that had Starr tossing a tennis ball at the wall for an extended period of time desperately seeking answers to improve his game - an impressive turnaround.
Starr was riding high but hit more turbulence on the road against the Stoneham Spartans and their high-powered offense in that state quarterfinal. Nantucket scored first in the game and only trailed 4-3 entering the final period, but three late Spartan goals sunk Nantucket 7-3.
But regardless of the way the season ended, Starr made a strong impression on former head coach Scott Corbett. His work ethic was one of the biggest takeaways and his desire to get better at the art of playing goalie.
“One thing he has really improved upon in my opinion is reading the forecheckers as they come in and helping his defenseman,” Corbett, who coached Starr during his first season as a starter, said. “That is such an underrated skill that is so important to breaking the puck out of the zone is the goalie directing the defenseman on where to go with the puck because their backs are turned and they don’t see the forecheckers. He isn't just talented, he is extremely smart.”
“Griff is really good at communicating with them and telling them where to go. Unfortunately, they don’t always listen to him,” Corbett continued while laughing. “But he is a really hardworking kid. Shows great leadership. He is so important to what makes that program run.”
All offseason leading into last year, many questions lingered about the state of the program after Corbett and assistant head coach Bob Hickman stepped down from their positions. The team lost 11 seniors from the previous season - including their top two lines.
The term “rebuild” was tossed around quite a bit with very little faith given to the 2022-2023 Whalers. To make matters worse, Nantucket fell into a 4-0 hole against Nauset in their season opener after one period and ultimately lost the game 7-4.
“I played pretty bad that game, but no one was really down on themselves,” Starr said. “We knew what we needed to fix. I let in some bad goals, which I needed to fix.”
Corbett and current head coach Jack Moran both said that Starr’s ability to move on from a bad goal or a bad game is one of his great strengths. Corbett said it is something Starr has become much better with as he’s gained more experience.
After the Nauset loss, Starr was exceptional in nearly every game. Starr only allowed more than three goals once moving forward (February 13th at home against Nauset in a 4-1 loss).
Starr finished the season with a 2.21 goals against average and helped Nantucket win 11 of 12 games after falling into an 0-3 hole to begin the season. On several nights, the Whalers needed stellar third period from Starr in order to secure victories.
Nantucket finished the regular season with a 13-6 record and Starr was excellent throughout the state tournament helping Nantucket beat Northeast Metro 4-2 in Round 1, Abington 6-2 in Round 2, and Amesbury 2-0 in the state quarterfinal despite playing through an injury suffered at the end of the Abington game that significantly impacted his ability to move from side to side and in the crease.
While Nantucket lost to Sandwich 3-0 in the state semifinal, Starr did all he could to keep a banged up Whaler team in the game.
But as the Whalers continued to win games, Starr was doing more than just providing quality goaltending. As he progressed through his junior year, he began to take on a larger leadership role and gladly took on a variety of roles for the team that nobody else wanted - such as continuing his role as the team’s de facto equipment manager.
“I set up everyone's locker before every game. I put everyone's gloves, helmets, shin pads, elbow pads, everything in the right spot as well as all the jerseys. I need to go buy hangers right now for that actually after I'm done talking to you,” Starr said.
On gamedays that fall on a school day, Starr will set up the lockers during his school to career course. On gamedays when there is no school, Starr will wake up and eat a quick breakfast before driving to the rink – where he spends about an hour setting everything up before leaving and returning later in the day about 90 minutes before puck drop.
"That way when I'm walking into the locker room to get ready for a game everything's already set up, everything's in place. I don’t have to worry about everything,” Starr said. “I don’t want to be thinking about anything other than the game once I arrive an hour and a half before game time.”
His willingness to do the thankless tasks has caught the eye of his head coach too.
“The kid is unbelievable,” Jack Moran said. “Yeah he is a damn good goalie, but he is an awesome human being. He represents what we should want every Nantucket kid to be. He is so good about a whole range of things that need to be done. He takes care of the jerseys and makes sure everybody has this, this, and this. That is the kind of kid we should all want representing Nantucket.”
“I took over last year and Griffin has been a true leader for the team taking it upon himself to do everything,” Moran continued “He will contact us if there's any issues that he sees. On the ice, he is playing quarterback out there. If kids aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing he's right on them. It's fantastic really. It's like having another coach. Every intermission he says we need to do this, we need to do that. We are going to miss him a lot next year but thankfully we have a whole season ahead of us.”
But Starr doesn't just look out for his teammates. He has also looked out for his fellow classmates on the girls varsity hockey team for years.
Former Whaler girls varsity hockey head coach Liz Collins said that Starr served as the team’s goalie coach as an eighth grader. Starr was a member of Nantucket’s JV hockey team at the time and would practice before the girls’ team, which was founded in 2018.
Collins said Starr repeatedly dedicated his free time to helping her goalies learn the position – including Shea Harnishfeger (two-year starter who graduated in 2021) and Caroline Allen, who is a senior captain for the girls team this year and entering her third year as the starting goalie. Collins said that often times Starr would practice for two hours with the junior varsity team and stay on the ice afterwards to work with the varsity team’s goalies despite being exhausted and “sometimes struggling to stand.”
“I love Griff and the whole team loves Griff,” Collins said. “He was literally our goalie coach as an eighth grader and then as a freshman. He was so helpful. I’m honestly not sure we would of fully made it (as a program) without him. He made my life as a coach easier.”
On Sunday, December 10, Starr will represent a Whaler boys hockey team with state championship aspirations as their lone captain. Senior center Ryan Davis and senior defenseman Michael Culkins will be assistant captains.
“In the end it does come down to all three of us,” Starr said. “We pretty much all have equal authority. It does mean a lot to be wearing the ‘C’ though because my brother (Austin) had it too. So it's kind of cool that we both have it.
As a sophomore, Starr led the program to their second ever state quarterfinal. As a junior, Starr led the program to its first ever state semifinal. As a senior captain, he hopes to help his team go on an even deeper postseason run that lands them a game at the TD Garden and maybe even some hardware.
Starr said he takes a lot of pride in being this team’s captain and hopes to see a packed rink on Sunday at 2 p.m. against the defending Div. 4 champions, Norwell, who accomplished last season what Nantucket hopes to achieve this season as a Div. 4 favorite. It is a game that should serve as a measuring stick early on for this Whaler squad.
“I take a lot of pride in just being a Whaler and being part of the island, being part of the community," Starr said. "I love the community. It's tight, and then when it comes to a big game like Amesbury or Abington the rink gets packed, and hopefully we can do that on Sunday when Norwell comes here.”