He led Mount Saint Charles to 32 high school championships in more than 40 years behind the bench, and at age 92, Normand “Bill” Belisle died on Jan. 12 and left behind a lasting impact on Rhode Island and USA Hockey.
The school announced the Manville, R.I., native’s passing Wednesday night. His list of achievements in the sport as the longtime coach of the Mounties was long. He racked up 1,000 wins, and in his run of more than 30 state titles, led the school to 26 consecutive championships from 1978-2003. During his tenure, he had more than 20 players selected in the NHL draft, including a pair of first overall selections: Brian Lawton (1983) and Bryan Berard (1995). His career winning percentage was north of .800, an astounding figure when you factor in how many games he coached.
“It’s a sad day, but in all, celebrating his life is a wonderful thing,” Dave Capuano (Cranston, R.I.), his former player and an All-American at the University of Maine, told WPRI’s Taylor Begley after the news broke. “We remember so many things he taught us. Work ethic and discipline and values. For me, mostly, it’s all those things he taught me for a life lesson and I think a lot of his players would say the same thing.”
As head coach at Mount Saint Charles from 1975 through the 2019 season, Belisle was a member of the U.S. and Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame. He leaves behind four sons, including Dave, who joined him behind the bench for several decades and helped build the program. Another son, Pete, is the head coach at UMass-Boston. Belisle’s wife of 66 years, Yvette, passed away in December 2019.
“The idea that a tiny Catholic high school in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, of all places could achieve what Bill was able to build over the years is unbelievable,” longtime Providence Journal sports editor and New England Hockey Journal contributor Mark Divver said. “It’s almost like a work of fiction. You wouldn’t believe that this tiny school, in this out-of-the-way beaten-down city would be the kingpins of high school hockey down in this area. You just wouldn’t believe it. Yet, they were.”
Belisle’s reputation as a tough, demanding “old school” coach whose practices were much harder to get through than the games themselves was tempered by the compassion for his players and an earnest desire to make them better men, beyond the wins and championships they were a part of on the ice. Although he was difficult to please and demanded excellence from everyone even on days when they perhaps weren’t at their best, the life lessons he imparted to his players helped make them winners long after they stopped playing the game.
“I think the successes we’ve had in life, I think a lot of us, we can attribute to what he taught us,” Capuano said. “I’m fortunate to have a wonderful father, but I feel like I had almost two fathers, with what he taught at Mount Saint Charles. As far as my hockey career goes, I think that he was so instrumental to me going on and being successful. But not only as a player, but even as a family person, as a father, and I think that goes back to a lot of us enjoying the time we spent with him and what he taught all of us.”
Woonsocket is a city that was built by a large immigrant population from Quebec, and they brought their love of the game with them from Canada. Hockey has always been in the town’s DNA, but in 1975, Mount Saint Charles was not faring well. Once Belisle took over, it didn’t take him long to transform the program into a power.
Winning 26 straight championships is a feat that will likely never again be accomplished. For Belisle and his Mounties, it wasn’t always just about having the most talented teams, though.
“There were a lot of years he had the best team so of course, they won,” Divver said. “But there were also plenty of years that he didn’t have the best team but through the force of his personality, he willed his team to win. Those teams of his would do anything to win. The opponents want to win too — they’re high school kids, they want to win. But Bill’s teams would do anything to win. They would pay any price, and it really was something to see how year after year after year, they got it done. Again, if I laid this scenario out for you, you might say, ‘no, that isn’t true — that’s fiction,’ but they did it.”
The remarkable run that started when Jimmy Carter was in the middle of his only term as President of the United States, ended near the end of President George W. Bush’s first term, in early 2004. When Toll Gate High put a stop to the streak of 26 titles, Divver said that Belisle was magnanimous and gracious in defeat, another important lesson he imparted to all of his players. All good things must come to an end, but when it did for the Mounties, Belisle set the right example and exhibited the kind of class and humility befitting his status.
Another indication of Belisle’s reputation beyond his own school and teams was with the respect paid to him by opponents. Divver recalled that in the last 10 or 15 years of Belisle’s tenure behind the bench, the other team’s players would line up by the Mount Saint Charles bench after a game and everyone would skate by and shake his hand.
“I’ve never seen that,” Divver said. “They all wanted to win those games just as badly, but when it was over, they had so much respect for the man that they lined up and showed their respect. That is one more thing that gets to the heart of what he meant.”
Belisle helped build the foundation that the school enjoys today as one of the top full-season midget programs in the United States. The framework might be different in 2022 than in 1982 when the dynasty was still in its early stages in the Ocean State.
However, his legacy goes well beyond the victories and accolades. When you look at how many of his players have come out to talk about how he molded and shaped their character, and helped them reach new heights beyond hockey, that’s the measure of success that transcends the wins and losses.
The MSC community is saddened to share that Bill Belisle, Mount’s long-time hockey coach & a stalwart member of our school community,passed away January 12, 2022. Bill’s impact on our school cannot be measured & our hearts & prayers are with his family. https://t.co/GnJR54BLhd pic.twitter.com/GlBIFLO3mT
— Mount Saint Charles (@MtStCharles) January 13, 2022
One of the true legends of Rhode Island Hockey has passed! Bill Belisle was a 2nd father to so many at Mount St. Charles. I could never list here all the things he taught so many of us. I feel blessed to have known him RIP my friend!My thoughts & prayers are with him & his family
— Brian Lawton (@brianlawton9) January 13, 2022
WATCH: from @SportsCenter last night. Scott Van Pelt @notthefakeSVP with a tremendous tribute to @MtStCharles legendary hockey coach Bill Belisle and his son Dave who coached their final game this weekend for the Mounties. pic.twitter.com/kePvVB8UG7
— Yianni Kourakis (@WPBF_Yianni) March 12, 2019