Hockey Coach Suspended

By COLE LOUISON

Head varsity hockey coach Mike Jackson is serving a five-day suspension after an incident following Sunday's Fairleigh Dickinson tournament at the Martha's Vineyard Arena that left the team's trophy in pieces and the hockey community sharply divided.

Angry over Vineyarders' loss to Shrewsbury and placing of second in the tourney, Mr. Jackson retired with his team to the locker room, where he destroyed the tournament's second-place trophy by whacking it repeatedly with a hammer. Accounts of what Mr. Jackson said to his players conflict, but charges were raised this week that he told his team not to tell their parents about the locker-room incident.

Monday, complaints from students and parents flooded the office of high school principal Peg Regan, who attempted to set up an immediate conference with Mr. Jackson. He was not readily available, having gone to Hanover to scout the team scheduled to play the Vineyard Wednesday night. The two met briefly at a girls' hockey game that evening at home and arranged to meet the next day.

Tuesday Mr. Jackson, Mrs. Regan and athletic director Russell MacDonald met to discuss the incident and the ensuing complaints. At that meeting, Mr. Jackson confirmed he had smashed the trophy with a hammer, and Mrs. Regan made the decision to suspend him as coach for five days.

The suspension began Tuesday, the day of the meeting, and the three planned to meet again today for further discussion.

As a result of the suspension, Mr. Jackson could not coach his players in Wednesday's game against Hanover and will miss today's game against Westwood. He was in attendance Wednesday, but sat in the concessions room.

Mr. Jackson would not comment on the incident Sunday or his current suspension, but he did respond when asked if his absence affected the team's performance at Wednesday evening's home game against undefeated Hanover, who bested the Vineyarders 5-3 in a very physical game.

"I don't think that it mattered," he said. "Once the puck hits the ice, all of the peripheral stuff that's going around right now, they're kind of oblivious to it, I think."

Mrs. Regan, Mr. Jackson and athletic director Russell MacDonald met with the team and assistant coaches Thursday after practice. Mr. Jackson declined to comment about the meeting.

The issue this week seemed to divide hockey parents into factions of those in support of the coach, and those condemning his actions. After Wednesday's game, a shouting match between two women over the trophy-smashing incident ended only when rink officials stepped in to stop the argument.

"I have some very upset parents and some very supportive parents of Mike as a coach," said Mrs. Regan, who said she is further investigating the incident with the assistance of Mr. MacDonald.

"Allegations against him are serious enough to warrant me investigating him further," Mrs. Regan said. "What I would like to do is get the impact of this action on the team."

Mrs. Regan has an open-door policy to any student or parent wishing to discuss the incident, recent suspension, or Mr. Jackson. Her office has received numerous letters and phone calls from parents offering various perspectives on the subject.

Ms. Regan had met with a small number of team members individually, and met with the entire team Thursday to dispel rumors and inform everyone that the suspension and investigation were issued under her authority. Later on in the day, a few more players came by her office, she said.

Mrs. Regan is still unsure about the language used by Mr. Jackson in the locker room after the game, but detects a trend in the relationship between the coach and his players.

"I've asked [students] if they have talked to the coach about this, and they say ‘No, you don't talk to the coach about that.' You can infer from that they're afraid to talk to the coach about this," she said.

Though the five-day suspension is a standard procedure, according to Mrs. Regan, the investigation process in this case is less familiar. Under the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), who writes the rules that govern the MVRHS sports teams, an official can penalize a coach or student for unsportsmanlike conduct, which includes violent actions or abusive language.

This case is exceptional because no officials were involved, Mrs. Regan said, making the investigation an internal one left up to her as principal. No other coach has been suspended this school year.

Mr. Jackson's suspension this week added to the turmoil in an athletic department already shaken by recent events. School officials and student committees have been debating for months a high school policy toward athletes who use drugs or alcohol; football coach Don Herman has been in the center of that dispute ever since the school committee overturned his policy of signing behavioral contracts with his players. Jay Schofield, a beloved coach of more than 30 years' tenure who over the years has led both basketball and soccer squads, is retiring at the end of this school year. And on Tuesday, the day of his first meeting with Mrs. Regan and Mr. Jackson over the trophy-smashing incident, Mr. MacDonald announced that he will resign as high school athletic director at the end of this school year.

But despite all these developments, Mrs. Regan denied suggestions that the athletic department was in dire straits.

"I think we've hit a series of issues that have been simmering below the surface for a while, and they've all just surfaced in the past few months," she said. "Overall, our athletic program is very strong," she added, noting that 60 per cent of students are involved in athletics. "Right now we're dealing with issues. I don't feel in any way the athletic program is in jeopardy."

Mrs. Regan said the timing of Mr. MacDonald's decision and the recent hockey incident were coincidental.

"I think it's a decision he's been thinking about for a long time, and he's being very courteous in giving me time to get out there and find a good athletic director," Mrs. Regan said. "It's hard to find a good athletic director, and he's been a good one."

A 1985 graduate of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, Mr. Jackson played on the school's first varsity hockey squad, formed in 1983. In 1991 he took the position of assistant coach, working under longtime Vineyard head coach Steve Donovan. Following Mr. Donovan's retirement in 1999, Mr. Jackson became the head coach of the Vineyarders.

Two winning seasons followed under Mr. Jackson's leadership, the first in 1999 when Vineyarders became the Eastern Massachusetts Division III champions, and the next year when the squad won the Division III state championship. Currently 11-5-2 for the 2000-2001 season, the Vineyarders stand third in the Cape and Islands League and have qualified for the MIAA state tournament.