February 2, 2013

HockeyTown: Woonsocket, Rhode Island

By Andrew Merritt

Mount St. Charles (top left) has won 30 state titles under coach Bill Belisle, shown above right with Brian Lawton. Bryan Berard, seen here as an Islander, played parts of 11 NHL seasons. 

WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Bill Belisle has just about run out of room.

The walls in his office are covered in brown faux wood paneling, but you have to look pretty closely to see that, because covering just about every square inch of those walls, plus the filing cabinets and part of the floor in front of Belisle’s desk, are newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, framed awards and citations, trophies, jerseys, jackets, pucks and other miscellaneous items.

The artifacts of Belisle’s legendary career are about as neatly arranged as such a collection can be, an indication of the meticulous chaos in which Belisle plies his trade.

For 37 years, Belisle has been the coach of the Mount St. Charles boys hockey team, a juggernaut program whose history is inescapable — especially when you walk into the ancient Brother Adelard Ice Arena. Floor-to-ceiling trophy cases and banners greet visitors in the lobby, off of which Belisle’s office (and makeshift hall of fame) sits.

When you walk through the doors to the rink itself, you’re greeted with a firm blast of cold air, and an even firmer blast of the past. Built in the early 1960s, it’s a converted World War II airplane hangar that is as unassuming as it is historic. Battered wooden seats run along the sides of the ice, with a tiny press box hanging above the center ice seats on one side. The benches are cavernous cutouts, just big enough to house a varsity team, and they overlook a tiny ice sheet surrounded not by Plexiglas, but by the oldest of old school: real, steel chain-link fencing.

But old-fashioned charm isn’t why we’re here in Woonsocket, a small northern Rhode Island city tucked in a crook of the Blackstone River. It’s the dozens of red banners hanging on the wall in one end of the arena that put Mount St. Charles, and Woonsocket, on the map. In those 37 years under Belisle, the Mounties have won 30 state championships, including the 26 consecutive titles they won from 1977-2003, a streak unlikely to be matched anywhere, ever.

That success has garnered the Mount a lot of notoriety, from a 1985 Sports Illustrated feature published during the state title streak, to “Pride on the Mount,” a book by Providence Journal writer John Gillooly about Mount’s 1997-98 team, which went 21-7-1 and won Belisle’s 21st straight state championship. Mount’s utter dominance has made it a destination for hockey players and fans alike, and the school has produced an impressive list of hockey-playing alumni over the years, including recently retired Mathieu Schneider (Woonsocket, R.I.), former Boston Bruin Bryan Berard (Woonsocket, R.I.), current Carolina Hurricane Brian Boucher, and New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow (Wrentham, Mass.), who had a prolific career at Maine and in the pro ranks.

“We only got to one Bruins game a year, but the alternative was to go to high school hockey games, and obviously Mount had a reputation for great high school hockey,” said Snow, thinking back to his days as an elementary school kid in nearby Wrentham, Mass. “Brian Lawton, Paul Guay, those were players I looked up to as a hockey player.

“As the torch was passed from one class to the next, you never wanted to be the player who didn’t win the state championship. There was a source of Mount pride, the determination not to be the senior class that lost. It was a tradition that was fun to be a part of.”

At the center of that tradition is Belisle, an affable conversation partner off the ice, but a strict disciplinarian when it comes to coaching his team. Of the four former players spoken to for this story, all four mentioned the word “discipline” when describing Belisle’s coaching style. It has galvanized team after team of teenagers into well-oiled machines. He demands the most from his players, and not just on the ice; Belisle has his own report card that he asks teachers to fill out so he can keep track of each player’s academic progress.

“School is the priority, in my coaching theory,” he said. “If I don’t like (the report from the teacher), you don’t play. If (players) don’t do the assignments, they don’t play.”

On the ice, Belisle’s son, David, runs practices with a style learned from his father. That style didn’t earn a lot of favor from players, even as it drew the best from them. Belisle remembered with a broad laugh the end-of-year banquet many years ago at which Guay, now an assistant coach, spoke about his time as a Mount player.

“ ‘I hated Coach Belisle for all four years of high school,’ ” Belisle remembered Guay saying.

“You’re gonna play for a hard-nosed hockey coach,” Belisle said, “and I have no favorites.”

That hard-nosed style also has rubbed more than a few parents the wrong way. Belisle deals with his team and his coaches and no one else.

“He shut the doors and locked the parents out,” said former player Dave Capuano, who went on to have a great career at Maine with Snow, played in the NHL for Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Tampa Bay and San Jose (plus a stint with the Providence Bruins toward the end of his career), and now runs the Cranston Reds junior program. “Today it’s just a whole different world. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the parents are getting in the way, and not having the kids earn what they get. When I was there, I earned what I got, nobody gave me anything there.

“That’s what he taught me, he taught discipline; he taught you what it took to play.”

Belisle calls himself hard-nosed. The parents might think of him as hard-headed. Of course, after Belisle survived a horrific 1983 accident in which a player’s errant shot fractured his skull, nearly killing him, that might not be such an insult, either. There’s no arguing the results, nor the pride felt by those associated with the program — the very pride that inspired the title of Gillooly’s book.

“The pride came from the work ethic of my father,” said David Belisle, himself a former player who had to work equally hard to measure up under Bill’s direction. In the humid locker room after an early December practice, Mount player past and present acknowledged that pride.

“It’s awesome to play for my grandfather and my father,” said David’s son, Brian, a senior and the captain of this year’s squad. “My grandfather’s a living legend, and it’s an honor. I always wanted to come to Mount — I don’t know if I had a choice, but I wanted to come.”

But Woonsocket has changed. When Belisle was a player (under Brother Adelard himself), and even when he began his coaching career, the town was still dominated by the French-Canadian population that settled there in the early 20th century. It has become more of a melting pot over the past two decades, and 14.2 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2010 census, with a median income just under $40,000. Hockey is not a primary focus for the residents of the city, which means the players populating the ice during Mount St. Charles and Woonsocket North Stars practices are increasingly from other towns.

In that way, the “Hockeytown” label we’re applying to Woonsocket has a slightly different meaning, more like the name of a hockey-centric theme park that draws visitors from miles around. Mount’s team, which is just as dominant as ever, only has two Woonsocket residents on its roster, and only about 5 percent of the players in the hugely successful Woonsocket North Stars youth program come from the city itself, according to program official Matt Connell.

“Woonsocket’s culture has changed quite a bit, where there’s a lot less hockey players from Woonsocket than 20 years ago,” Connell said. “Most of the Woonsocket North Stars are coming from Cumberland, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and even over the border in Blackstone (Mass.). The culture’s changed quite a bit.”

Still, Woonsocket is the place to be for the area’s youth players, and the North Stars currently have about 300 kids scattered among the program’s various teams, Connell said. There are 17 travel teams, and the house league is expanding this year to accommodate the growing numbers. So even if the city of Woonsocket itself isn’t producing the talent, it is the epicenter of hockey for northern Rhode Island and south-central Massachusetts.

A big reason for that is the arena itself, for while it’s hardly the most modern house of hockey in the area — in fact, it might be the least modern of any building with a roof — it’s still the only indoor sheet of ice for miles in any direction. And it seems like no coincidence that the arena, and the school itself, sit high atop a hill in the middle of Woonsocket.

“Anywhere you drive in Woonsocket, you can look up in the sky and see the campus,” Snow said.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.