Skip to main content
Publish date:

Hockey High

Against Boston's Catholic Memorial the other team rarely has a prayer

On a Mayafternoon weeks after the last game of the ice hockey season, coach Bill Hansonwalked up the concrete steps of Boston's Catholic Memorial High School, where agroup of his players were hanging out. Hanson doled out photocopies of theseason's final U.S. scholastic coaches' poll, which the boys examined. "Oh,by the way," the coach said as he left, "you guys won the nationalchampionship."

Oh, by the way?Well, it was the Knights' third national title in four years. "I'm sure ifit were the first one, it would have been different," says Joe Gray, 17,one of the team's alternate captains. "But the way Coach Hanson told us, hedidn't make like it was that big a deal."

Indeed it wasnot. At Catholic Memorial—which is officially in West Roxbury. about 10 mileswest of the heart of Boston—hockey championships are nearly as routine as mathhomework and Mass. Not only did the Knights win the national titles in 1991,'92 and '94, but since the 1985-86 season they have won eight Massachusettsstate championships, including the last five in a row. Along the way CatholicMemorial has had a better winning percentage in Boston Garden, which hosts thestale tournament, than the arena's NHL resident, the Bruins. And former Knightshave gone on to play for NCAA champions, for the U.S. Olympic team and at everyechelon of pro hockey in North America. In a city that fostered one of thegreatest dynasties in professional sports, the Boston Celtics, another dynastyhas been forged by the teenage sons of doctors and accountants and postalworkers at this modest all-boys' parochial school.

The defense ofCatholic Memorial's most recent title began as soon as the 1994-95 team waspicked. On the November day immediately following the final tryout (an auditionknown among school mothers as the Moment of Terror), Hanson led the Knightsinto a scrimmage against Tollgate High in Providence, R.I. Catholic Memorialhad not yet had a single practice, yet the Knights performed as if it weremidseason. Forwards covered seamlessly for fallen, beaten or risk-takingdefensemen. Lines changed with striking facility. Only the Knights' passinggame on the fly seemed imprecise, and that was mostly because Hanson put outlines that had never before skated together. Tollgate, which had been workingout on the ice for the previous week and a half, skated much less cohesively,and the Knights cruised to an 8-2 victory.

The scrimmagegave rise to talk of another championship season. But around Catholic Memorialpeople are becoming kind of jaded. "This year the basketball team has achance to win the state title, so then everybody in the school will gocrazy," says 17-year-old Steve O'Brien, the hockey team's captain. "Butthey've almost stopped coming to our games."

On the road,however, the Knights are rarely treated with indifference. "We were up at atournament in Vermont, and when we walked into the rink, the whole place wassilent," says Gray. "Kids were over at the bench asking us forautographs, asking the water boy for autographs."

"And at MountSt. Charles, they're throwing tennis balls," says Joe Savioli, 17, theteam's other alternate captain. "They're spitting on us."

"They hadsigns: CM GO HOME," adds Gray. "It was unreal. I mean, it wasadults—parents!—not just kids."

"It waspretty fun, actually," Savioli says.

If there is asingle reason for the program's enduring success, it is the man who for thepast 20 years has built Catholic Memorial hockey in his own image: Hanson, thenation's 1993-94 high school Coach of the Year. The 45-year-old son of a SouthBoston electrician, Hanson brings a lunchpail work ethic to the job. He is atough yet cordial man with an unflagging will to win.

Players respondto Hanson because he is direct and unambiguous; when he speaks, his thickeyebrows seem to point at his listener. Colleagues respond to Hanson because heis a role model; first-year Catholic Memorial assistant coach Dale Dunbar, 34,who played briefly for both the Vancouver Canucks and the Bruins during the'80s, says, "I can learn as much from Bill as I could from [Bruin coach]Brian Sutter." And Hanson's bosses respond to the way he gets the job done."He's a good, methodical teacher," says Brother Robert Harris, chairmanof Catholic Memorial's science department, in which Hanson is a ninth-gradeinstructor. "He's energetic and enthusiastic. He is the kind of person whocan control the entire cafeteria by himself. You don't need the other fivefaculty members who are there."

The coach takespride in his reputation as a principled disciplinarian. He regularly checks hisplayers' grades, SAT scores and class schedules. He monitors their collegerecruiting and holds firm to the belief that if he can get to school on timefrom his house 54 miles away on Cape Cod, his players can make it too. What allthis does for the boys, Hanson says, "is develop their personalities to apoint where they don't cheat on any part of their hockey."

About 150 ofCatholic Memorial's 712 students aspire to a letter in hockey, beginning in thenewly formed seventh-and eighth-grade intramural squads and proceeding upthrough the freshman, jayvee and varsity teams. "It's like Notre Damefootball," says the father of one jayvee sophomore. "A kid might be asuperstar. But there are just so many kids in front of him."

Players commutefrom as far as 30 miles away in hopes of playing Boston's own game at the nextlevel. The brass ring is a scholarship to one of the top college hockeyprograms in the nation, many of which are in the Boston area.

"These kidsare not all bright—some of them struggle in school—but they do the work,"says John Realty, who has watched two of his sons play for Catholic Memorial:Jeff (class of '94 and the Quebec Nordiques' No. 1 draft pick) and Joe (now asophomore defenseman for the Knights). "Sometimes after a late game, thetendency is not to go to school. That doesn't happen [at Catholic Memorial].Here you go and do the job. I think that really prepares kids, not just forcollege, but for life in general."

"I just wantto get into college," says Gray, nodding with uncharacteristic gravity."I just want to get into college."

Some youngKnights dare to envision suiting up as professionals after their collegeyears—even, say, for their beloved Bruins. And such dreams seem reasonable whenall a kid has to do is look across the ice during Catholic Memorial's annualalumni game to see the likes of Bruin forward Ted Donato, class of '87, whowent on to Harvard and became the MVP of the 1989 NCAA championship game, aU.S. Olympian and the only player to appear in all 84 games that the Bruinsplayed last season.

"They learnthe rules no matter where they're playing, but they get taught at CM," saysGordie Clark, chief of scouting for the Bruins. "Some kids can go tojuniors or to college and not even know the fundamentals of the game yet. Youknow your CM player's going to be fundamentally sound."

So that is whyHanson routinely distributes college recruiting letters at team meetings andspends time on the phone dictating the Knights' schedule to scouts. It's a goodthing his team frequently plays well into the postseason, giving him enoughtime for these sideline duties.

It should onceagain. Thirteen players have returned from last year's championship team, andthe Knights have already charged to a 7-0-1 record. Furthermore, they have aparticularly strong incentive for getting back into the state tournament: Thisseason's Massachusetts title will be the last to be decided in Boston Garden,which is to be torn down in September.

"I want us tobe the last ones to win it in there," Hanson says, flashing a smile."And I want us to be the first ones to win it in the new place."



Hanson monitors his players during games but also keeps a close eye on them off the ice.



O'Brien (55) says students are so used to Knight wins that many no longer show up at games.