Half a century apart, two very different coaches have been instrumental in making the hockey team of a New England parochial school the national high school champion. The first, a whimsical little brother of the Sacred Heart, did it in 1935. The second, a hard-bitten rink rat from just across town, has done it five times in the last five years.
The school is Mount Saint Charles Academy, situated high on a hill in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Down the road a ways is the rink, a structure that had been an airplane hangar in World War II. When it opened for hockey in 1962, it was the first enclosed rink at any New England high school.
What has gone on recently at that rink has drawn hosannas and cries of "Mon Dieu!" for in the area are 16,254 citizens of French-Canadian descent. In 1975 one of that number, Bill Belisle, who had played on Mount Saint Charles's 1947 state championship team, became the coach. Belisle had been a truck driver, construction worker, player for the semi-pro Worcester Warriors and Springfield Indians and finally assistant coach at his alma mater. "When I started coaching, the team was in last place," he says. "It was fortunate for me to take it at the bottom of the heap. Goodness sakes—there was no pressure at all!"
Belisle responded well to no pressure. The Mounties were 29-8-1 in his first season, and from 1976 through '82 they won 94 straight Metropolitan A Division games en route to seven conference titles. Mount Saint Charles has been state champ since 1978 and, according to a poll by the National Sports News Service in Edina, Minn., national champion since 1980. While outscoring opponents 2,037 to 540, Belisle's teams have won 272 games, lost 18 and tied five in nine seasons. Eighteen of his players have made first-team all-state. Five have been drafted by National Hockey League teams in the past two years, including Minnesota North Star Brian Lawton, who in '83 became the first American in NHL history to be picked No. 1 in the draft.
That's the latest news—that's what everyone's talking about. But there's more, and better. Behind the discernible, provable facts of the country's best, high school hockey team lies the legend. For this, one has to go way back to 1911. Brother Adelard Beaudet travels south from Quebec. He arrives in Rhode Island with a cross on his chest and a hockey stick over his shoulder. He is a missionary of dual purpose, coming to teach the children the way of the Lord and of the slap shot. Eventually he organizes the country's first interscholastic hockey league, then coaches his youthful Mount Saint Charles team to national championships. Or so the legend goes.
But as with most legends, only some of it is fact: Adelard did help form one of the nation's first youth leagues. Yes, his Mount Saint Charles teams were as good as any in the country, but they weren't as youthful as you might imagine. The truth is. Brother Adelard was importing Canadian talent to Woonsocket. Adelard will tell you so, and he's still around to do so. Last Feb. 5, his 100th birthday, was Brother Adelard Day throughout Rhode Island, and he received letters from President Reagan and Bobby Orr as well as plaques from Pope John Paul II and Jean Beliveau, patron saint of the Montreal Canadiens.
As a 10-year-old, Adelard had learned to skate on the frozen Saint Lawrence River near his home in Saint Jean Deschaillons, Quebec. In 1904, at 20, he took his vows and seven years later was sent to Sacred Heart Academy in Central Falls, R.I., to spread the Word, not start the Hockey. Nevertheless, "Right away I started it," he says. "They didn't have any sticks. We had to go to the wood and get some branches and flatten them. Then we went to a pond near the city. We used rocks on the ice for goals and school books for shin pads. We played one hour without time-outs or penalties, and we had no zones."
Adelard spent 13 years shaping sticks for the boys of Sacred Heart before he was transferred to Mount Saint Charles in neighboring Woonsocket. Switching from the classroom to the front office, Adelard would serve 30 years at the school, most of them as "a treasurer without money, because of the Depression."
When he wasn't balancing the books, Adelard could be found playing hockey with the boys on a rink he'd designed. As Adelard recalls, "We started a little league with La Salle Academy of Providence and Mount Saint Charles and Classical and Central High in Providence. Then hockey took a big growth and there were teams all over."
When the competition stiffened, Adelard expanded his efforts. "So I imported some players from Canada. I had scouts up there," he says. His agents were fellow brethren in Quebec, who told skaters of the wonderful experience a few years in the U.S. would provide. "Goodness sakes!" says Belisle admiringly. "Those players he brought in—they were pros!"
They even looked like pros: Their uniforms resembled those worn by the Canadiens. Adelard's first heavily recruited team won the conference title and reached the state finals in 1930-31. From 1932 through '40 his teams won 160 games, tied 15 and lost only seven. In 1934-35 the Flying Frenchmen, as they were unofficially known, went undefeated in 27 games and won the New England and national titles. The Mount was again the national champ in '39. Adelard's teams were indomitable: His '35 squad had 12 straight shutouts; all the starters on his '39 team made the first-team all-state lineup. Mount Saint Charles won 10 straight conference championships.
Problem was, it was evident that the youth of Rhode Island couldn't be rolling up records like that. Three of Adelard's starting five skaters in '35 were from Canada. Even though everyone else in Woonsocket spoke with the same Quebecois lilt as the Mount's players, there was no disguising origin once they laced up their skates.
"They found out [about the imports]—the officials at other schools—and one year they said, 'You are banned from the league,' " Adelard recalls. "That's when I stopped the coaching." He adds with a hint of pride, "A lot of high school regulations pertaining to the hockey were made because of Mount Saint Charles." Those rules, effectively shutting down the Quebec-Woonsocket pipeline, signaled the end of an era.
Brother Adelard faded as a public figure on campus. He continued quietly as treasurer of the school, then in 1954 assumed the same role at Notre Dame High School in Fitchburg, Mass. On the ice of Woonsocket, hockey slid. There were a few good teams in the '40s, including that '47 state championship team, but little that was the stuff of legend.
Then, a decade ago, Bill Belisle reappeared on the scene. Five national championships have made him a larger-than-life figure, but it was something else that conferred near-mythic stature on him. "It was February 21st in 1983, the first practice right after the league playoffs and just before the states," Belisle says. "One of the younger players had borrowed skates and was getting used to them. I was yelling instructions, and from behind the kid knocked me right off my feet. I went six feet up and landed on my head. My skull was cracked open from the top down to the neck. I was pronounced dead at Woonsocket Hospital. But God gave me a second chance."
While Mount Saint Charles skated gamely to its usual championships. Belisle, 53 at the time, slowly mended in the hospital and at home. "For seven months I didn't know who I was, where I was. I was so ashamed," he says. For a person self-described as "not an easy fellow." the instruments of rehabilitation—eyeglasses, hearing aids, CAT scanners—were not easy to take. There was frustration even in life's small pleasures: "The doctor said the only thing that could cause a seizure is alcohol. Now I like a beer, goodness sakes! That night I think. 'Screw him, I'll test myself.' I had two beers, and I was all red and flushed. Unbelievable!"
Eventually Belisle came around to accepting his condition. But he refused to accept the doctors' early prognosis that he was through with coaching. "In September I came back to school. Every day I thought, 'Will I be the same Bill Belisle I was?' Goodness sakes, hockey season was two months away!"
During the first week of November that year, the coach had a private tryout. "Dr. John Guay came with me to the rink. He said, 'I know you hate helmets, but suit up with a helmet.' Now I don't want to brag, but I'm a decent skater. So I'm out there, and I skate two or three times backwards and I'm off balance. The doc says, 'That's your middle ear. Skate in a crouch.' I didn't get dizzy in a crouch." A week later Belisle, hunched over and wearing a helmet, his right leg still paralyzed from knee to ankle, skated to center ice and called his team around him. "You will get sharper day after day," he told them. "And I will get sharper day after day."
But it was difficult for him to be as confident as he tried to appear. The team had lost seven seniors, including Lawton, and Belisle himself was still having fits of forgetfulness. Yet his words were borne out. Fourteen hundred fans a game watched an amazing season unfold at Adelard Arena. A 14-2-2 record wasn't quite good enough to win another Metropolitan championship, but it proved to Belisle that his team could skate with tough schools. "In the playoffs we were the Mount of old," he says. With Adelard, just turned 100, watching from the press box, Mount Saint Charles swept La Salle and Cranston East in three games each and won the state title. In March the national rankings came out, and Mount Saint Charles had edged Matignon of Cambridge, Mass. for the No. 1 spot.
This season the team is continuing its indomitable ways. As the calendar turned. Saint Charles was 5-0 in the conference and had just won its own Christmas tournament. The playoffs start in early March, and the Mount will surely be there. It is hoped Adelard will, too. He's recovering from a hernia operation but is expected to return soon to the rink that bears his name. He'll sit contentedly in the press box, puffing on one of his beloved Dutch Masters cigars as he watches Belisle's team below.