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On the ice, Stoneman Douglas hockey players overcome tragedy

Some of the past few days, Matthew Hauptman was saying, have been among the best of his life, and if there could be a much more comforting sentiment going out to Parkland, it’s hard to imagine what that might be.

Hauptman is a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which frames the lows he has endured to the point that nothing else need be said about what happened on Valentine’s Day.

The story didn’t end there, it began there. Eleven days after the massacre that left 17 dead, Hauptman, the team captain, led the Eagles to the state ice hockey championship.

Yes, there were tears. “Many tears,” said Bonnie Hauptman, Matthew’s mother and the team manager.

Yes, there were medals. Seventeen, to be exact — one awarded to each of the Eagles who played in the state final, even though each recipient knew there was something not quite right with that picture.

“It all started before the championship game when we were in the locker room,” Matthew said. “One of the players on our team realized there were 17 players that were going to be playing in the championship game and then we said, ‘We’re winning this game. We’re winning this game. And when we win the game, we’re going back to school and we’re putting these medals on each memorial for every person that we just played this tournament for.’

“And that’s exactly what we did.”

Hauptman described the scene two Sundays ago, when Douglas High held an open house to welcome everybody back to campus: “We all met up. We all walked and we all stood behind a memorial and we all dropped our medals.

“And they’re still in there today.”

Storybook? We’re just getting started. We could mention that the team, 12-5-3 in the regular season, went 0-3 in the round-robin portion of the state tournament and was the lowest-seeded team in the knockout stage. But all those details only delay the latest elements of this team’s tale.

Monday, the Eagles accepted an invitation from the Florida Panthers to practice on their NHL ice at the BB&T Center, where less than two weeks prior, CNN held its Town Hall meeting to discuss solutions to school shootings.

“It was great to get on the big-boys’ ice,” forward Joey Zenobi said.

The players knew a surprise awaited afterward. Zenobi figured maybe Panthers players Aleksander Barkov or Nick Bjugstad might skate with them. Matthew Hauptman expected team mascot Stanley C. Panther to appear.

The Eagles did get Stanley — only it was the Stanley Cup, flown in by the NHL and the Panthers.

You put hockey players and the Stanley Cup together, the rest is predictable. First, pictures. Lots of them. Then, players took turns hoisting the Cup — or trying to.

“That thing is heavy,” Hauptman said.

Then: “It was just unreal. They let us play around with it, lift it, brought it into the locker room, let us drink out of it,” Hauptman said. “It was amazing. It was really special to all of us.”

Panthers employees and relatives looking on all knew that anything that can put even a temporary smile on these students’ faces was worth the trouble.

“It’s been ups and downs like crazy,” Matthew Hauptman said, “starting at the day, just being the worst day of my life … ”

There had been some question about whether the team would even travel upstate to Estero for the state tournament. Then, in the opening game, Douglas lost 5-4 to neighborhood rival North Broward — the same kids who had walked from their campus to Douglas days after the shooting in a display of unity.

Losses to East Lake and Tampa Jesuit followed, which only attests to this team’s resilience once more. The Eagles’ victories in the knockout stages were over East Lake (3-1) and finally Jesuit (7-4).

“We play with so much passion and emotion,” Zenobi said.

Passion is what oozed when these players were skating around knowing the clock was reading :03, :02, :01, and they were about to become state champions.

“Every emotion just rushed into my body,” Zenobi said.

It’s a story with many chapters and no ending. Not yet, anyway. On March 22-26, the Eagles will be in Minnesota. Think about it: a team from Florida, playing for the national high school championship.

“It’s going to be something very special,” Matthew Hauptman said. “Just playing for the national championship is special and with the story that we’re coming with, it’s just going to make it even more special to our hometown and I’m just hoping we can bring back even more hardware.”

Speaking of hardware, win or lose in Minnesota, these players might not be walking around without medals much longer.

Efforts are under way to mint replacement medals for the ones they quietly conceded in honor of 17 people who deserve them more.

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