The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School boys’ varsity hockey team made international headlines when they won the Florida state championship last month.
Just 10 days after a shooting left 17 students and staff members dead and another 16 injured, the team pulled off two upsets in one day to win the state title.
Entering the four-team playoff seeded fourth, the Eagles picked up a 3-1 win over top-seeded East Lake High School and a 7-4 win over Jesuit High School in the Tier 1 final. The title came after Stoneman Douglas had gone winless against the three teams in the field during round-robin play.
TSN Senior Correspondent Rick Westhead travelled to Parkland, Fla. and spent a week with the team. Their stories from the shooting on Feb. 14 and the tournament that followed less than two weeks later will be revealed in the TSN Original “For The 17” on Wednesday night.
Westhead told TSN Radio 1200 Ottawa on Wednesday morning that the Stoneman Douglas players weren’t pushed to tell their stories, but instead offered them up as part of the healing process.
“Not as much as you might think,” Westhead said when asked if he had to pry for answers. “These kids were all eloquent and well-spoken and it hit super close to home. None of the players on the team were killed or injured, but one of the kids on the junior varsity team, his sister was one of the 17 people who were killed.
“[Another victim was] one of the boys’ best friends, a boy named Joaquin Oliver, who was a huge basketball fan and also went to all of the high school’s hockey games and was so rambunctious that for a time he was actually banned from the hockey rink where they played because he was just over the top with his support for his friends and teammates.
“They wanted to talk about this. I basically didn’t have to prod too much at all. I just said tell me what you want to tell me. Tell me what you remember about that day and what a difference hockey has made for you and for the community in the days since then.”
Westhead noted that the tone of “For The 17” is different from most of the coverage the shooting and the aftermath have received after the past five weeks. The feature will focus strictly on the power of healing sports can have on a community.
For that reason, the team’s head coach Eric LaForge agreed to be interviewed for the TSN Original. Westhead said Wednesday that LaForge, a native of Quebec who now resides in South Florida, had previously declined upwards of 80 media requests to speak on the tragedy and the team.
“I think maybe one of the reasons he agreed to do this is because we were not interested, for the purposes of this story, in furthering a conversation about gun control,” Westhead said. “Our story was about hockey. It was about the healing power of sports and it was about the players on his team.
“And so, watching this guy who was very unemotional – that’s how he described himself usually – and just seeing the emotion come out of him as he talked about what the boys meant to him, and talk about the days that happened afterwards… ‘What do we do? Do we keep playing hockey or is it inappropriate to keep going forward with the sport?’ That was one of the moments definitely that stands out.”
Westhead also expressed his gratefulness to the parents of Stoneman Douglas team for sharing their stories and allowing their children to do the same.
“I remember the parents being very cautious and weary at first and really coming around,” Westhead explained. “They were amazingly hospitable. They had me and the crew, they ordered food and drinks for us, and just were as gracious and open as you could ever ask of interview subjects, let alone at a time like this.
“I’m really, really proud of the piece that we did, I think that the families there are going to be happy with it.
Stoneman Douglas will play their first game of the high school hockey national championship tournament on Thursday in Plymouth, Minn., opening against Regis Jesuit of Colorado.
Westhead noted the team has done their best to avoid the media ahead of the tournament, opting instead to keep their focus on the ice and, perhaps, adding another upset to their underdog story.