ANDOVER -- Andover High's hockey team has never been in a better position -- or so it would seem.
It is coming off a second lengthy run through the state tournament. It has won back-to-back Merrimack Valley Conference titles. It has sent several players to college hockey programs, including two goalies who now play for Division 1 schools.
On Monday, the person most responsible for those results, head coach Chris Kuchar, was informed he would not be returning for the 2019-20 school year.
"I'm devastated," said Kuchar, who was informed his contract would not be renewed via phone call at 2:30 p.m. "This is over petty politics. This is not about the kids because if it was, I'd be back for another season."
Kuchar's time at Andover High, while successful on the ice and off, in terms of charitable endeavors, was tumultuous at times.
In 2016, Andover Superintendent Sheldon Berman wrote a lengthy letter to Principal Philip Conrad and then-Athletic Director Donald Doucette requesting he be fired for mistreatment of his son, at the time a player in the hockey program.
Then, in January 2018, Coach Kuchar and two top assistants were suspended pending an investigation by the Mass. Department of Children and Families of allegations that players were denied food and water. Three weeks later an independent investigation by the school cleared the coaches of the claims made by a parent, and they returned to the team.
Kuchar guided that 2017-18 team to its first-ever berth in the state's elite Super 8 tournament, losing two one-goal games as the No. 5 seed.
This past season, Andover High repeated as conference champs and was ousted in the state Div. 1 North semifinals. It received the MIAA 2018-19 Div. 1 Hockey Team Sportsmanship Award.
Kuchar said he met with the high school Director of Athletics Bill Martin last Friday for lunch at Palmer's restaurant to recap the season and talk about any issues.
"It went fine," said Kuchar. "Then at the end, as we were leaving, I said, sort of tongue in cheek, 'So, are we all set for next year?' And Bill said, 'I don't know.'
"Then I said, 'Wait a minute. Bill, we just won the league title and state sportsmanship award,'" said Kuchar. "Bill said, 'I have to put my evaluation together. I don't have it yet ... I have to talk to Phil [Conrad]. ... Chris, I think you're a good coach, good for our kids. This is not my call.'"
Calls to Martin and Conrad were not returned.
Andover schools spokesperson Nicole Kieser emailed a statement: "Today Andover High School Principal Philip Conrad and Athletic Director Bill Martin informed AHS boys ice hockey coach Chris Kuchar that his contract will not be renewed for the 2019-20 school year. We thank Chris for his work for the past five seasons and wish him the best in his future pursuits."
Asked to comment about the conversation between Kuchar and Martin, Kieser wrote, "I am not able to comment on meetings involving personnel."
Junior Michael Feeney, who is expected to be a senior leader on the team next winter, was not happy with the decision.
"This is a shame and embarrassment for our administrators," said Feeney. "Tons of coaches have gone through hardships with this administration. What they did to coach Kuchar two years ago was a disgrace -- and they know it. It was all made up.
"I'll never forget what coach Kuchar did for me," said Feeney. "I broke a nice stick during practice, and the next day I told him what happened. He ended up going to the hockey store and getting me a new stick. I was in shock. I knew then that he had my back."
Kuchar took over a program that had won five games the previous year, winning a dozen or more games in each of his five seasons on the Andover bench.
He also added a second junior varsity team to the program, funding it with money raised by an Andover High hockey golf tournament that he created.
"We grew the program so much that we were having to cut some pretty good players," he said. "So we added another JV team, and it's worked out great."
Kuchar’s teams were also deeply involved in local charitable efforts. They've raised money by running the Feaster Five and the Krit Classic road races in town. They serve the annual Christmas meal at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence. They’re involved with the Andover youth hockey's player of the week program, and they raised money to contribute to rehabbing the team locker room.
"We not only took over a program that struggled on the ice," said Kuchar, "but it was even worse off the ice. Former athletic director Don Doucette told me there were discipline problems and the image of the program was not good. Honestly, that was our first goal, and we took care of that."
Kuchar said Martin, the school's athletic director, offered a possible meeting with Principal Conrad next week.
"I said, 'I can meet with him right now,'" said Kuchar. "He said, 'He's not available until next week.'
"People said last year that you're crazy to want to come back," said Kuchar. "I looked beyond those petty issues. I love the kids here. They've become a part of my family. We had built something together here ... It's very, very disappointing."
Bill Burt is executive sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BurtTalksSports