By Scott Kinville.
The bonds of friendship last forever, as proven by a Colgate alumnus and his hockey coach friend
Eric Opin graduated from Colgate University in 1990 and has always had a strong passion for hockey. He played in his youth, and although he did not take the ice for the Raiders in college, he was still part of the team as a student assistant. Opin served in that role for the 1990 team that came within one game of winning the national championship.
After graduating from law school, Opin was introduced to a Connecticut coaching legend. Jason Pagni was a renowned coach in the state of Connecticut as well as throughout New England.
“Jason and I became fast friends,” Opin said of meeting Pagni. “He was a one-of-a-kind coach, mentor, etc for countless youth hockey and prep players, advocating boys and girls to go to prep school, and taking teams to the Quebec Pee Wee and Brick tournaments. He worked with numerous well-known players including Jonathan Quick, and Kevin Shattenkirk, and coached Pierre McGuire and Marty St. Louis’ kids”.
Jason Pagni also had a connection to Opin’s alma mater as he was good friends with both former Raiders head coach Don Vaughan and assistant coach Andrew Dickson (Dickson served on coach Don Vaughan’s staff from 1999 to 2007). Pagni was always available to advocate on behalf of a prospect.
Jason Pagni was much more than a hockey coach, he was a true ambassador of the game. Hailing from Hamden, Connecticut (which is also the home of Quinnipiac University), he played for the legendary Avon Old Farms Prep School and graduated in 1990. After playing two seasons of college hockey at Merrimack, Pagni embarked on a coaching journey that has left a lasting impression on youth hockey players all over Connecticut and New England.
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The impact Pagni made on Connecticut hockey went far beyond the “x’s and o’s” of a wipe board in a locker room. He was the owner and a coach of the Connecticut Yankees Youth Hockey Organization as well as Hamden House Hockey. Taking his involvement in youth hockey a massive step further, Pagni also founded the New England Prep School League, which has helped propel countless players into junior and college-level hockey.
A tragic accident and the formation of the Connecticut Hockey Foundation
On January 31st, 2014, a heartwrenching tragedy occurred, as Jason Pagni was killed in a car accident at the age of forty-three.
Pagni touched the lives of so many hockey players and their families that he came in contact with. Opin summed it up by saying “Jason was the family advisor before there was such a term, and was The advocate for Connecticut hockey.” His close friends knew something needed to be done to help Pagni’s wife and two young daughters.
Within a short period of time, the idea of a benefit hockey game for the education fund of Pagni’s daughters was organized. This would not be an ordinary benefit game, as it would take place at the home of the Taft Prep School between Sacred Heart University and UConn making it the first-ever NCAA Division I men’s hockey regular season ever played at a prep school (a fitting tribute to the man who started the New England Prep School League). The game took place in November of 2014 after Sacred Heart head coach C.J. Marottolo (who was a very close friend of Pagni) pitched the idea of the game to UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh who enthusiastically agreed.
The game raised over $13,000 for Pagni’s daughters, and with the spectacular success of this game, a second one was played in the fall of 2015. This time, Sacred Heart took on the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Danbury Arena in Connecticut and an additional $12,000 was raised.
Encouraged by how well the first two benefit games went, Pagni’s friends decided they wanted a permanent way to honor the late coach. As a result, the Connecticut Hockey Foundation was born in 2016 with the purpose of assisting youth players in Pagni’s memory. Eric Opin serves as the foundation’s Executive Director and the members of the board include C.J. Marottolo, Bill Maniscalco, Mike and Joe Pereiera, Pagni’s wife Kate, and John Gardner – who was Pagni’s coach at Old Avon Farms and has held that post for forty-nine years. Boston Bruins defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk serves as an honorary board member.
Keeping a great thing going
In carrying on the legacy and spirit of coach Jason Pagni, the Connecticut Hockey Foundation has raised over $9,500.00 which has been distributed for the most part to help offset the tuition of youth hockey players. Two particular examples of the foundation providing aid Opin cited were for a child who had medical issues that depleted the family’s assets, and a brother and sister whose father was a disabled veteran and whose mother was a first-generation immigrant.
“Our grants are done with a unique purpose, and with the blessing of the Pagni family,” the Connecticut Hockey Foundation’s Executive Director said.
The Connecticut Hockey Foundation raises funds through benefit hockey games and with the help of dignitaries from across the hockey world. Opin’s classmate at Colgate and longtime AHL and NHL assistant coach Steve Spott has been instrumental in the foundation’s fundraising efforts, as has the aforementioned Andrew Dickson (who was also Spott’s teammate at Colgate). Spott is currently an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars and arranged a virtual fundraising clinic about life in the NHL alongside Stars head coach Pete DeBoer. Dickson now works in the Boston Bruins organization and has linked the foundation to the Bruins Foundation and team general manager Don Sweeney – who was so impressed he personally donated four tickets to a Bruins game and a signed team jersey that was a tremendous fundraiser via auction. Before working for the Bruins, Dickson was in the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets organizations and was able to secure several items to auction from each of them as well.
Current New York Rangers assistant general Manager Ryan Martin was a teammate of Pagni’s at Avon Old Farms and was able to secure two game tickets to be auctioned from Rangers general manager Chris Drury and a Mika Zibanejad jersey as well. When he was in Detroit, Martin was able to donate both a Steve Yzerman and Henrik Zetterberg jersey.
The foundation held an evening with Paul D’Amato, who portrayed “Dr. Hook” Tim McCracken in the legendary hockey movie Slap Shot, which featured a McCracken jersey auction. Now retired ECAC Commissioner Steve Hagwell consistently put the foundation’s press releases on the league’s website, and Colgate Men’s Hockey play-by-play announcer John McGraw always mentions the Connecticut Hockey Foundation every time the Raiders play a team from Connecticut.
“We have been very lucky, and the support has floored us”, Opin said of the aid the Connecticut Hockey Foundation has received since it started. “It’s not about the names, but the kindness of people over the years.”
The Connecticut Hockey Foundation has indeed become a fitting tribute to a legendary hockey coach. To learn more about the foundation, follow them on Facebook at Connecticut Hockey Foundation, Inc. or on Twitter/X @CTHOCKEYFDN.