Rhode Island Reign

The Smallest State In The Union Has Had A Huge Impact On The Coaching Community

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhode Island has many fabulous claims to fame. It’s the home of the oldest tavern in the United States and the oldest merry-go-round. It gave the world Mr. Potato Head. One of its most famous landmarks is a giant, 58-foot-long, blue termite, perched on top of a building looming over I-95 in Providence, serving as a welcome sign to the Ocean State.

In sporting circles, however, the smallest state is known for having produced an unusually large number of top-level hockey coaches. True fact. 

Consider some of the Rhode Islanders who’ve ridden the bench to fame and fortune: Lou Lamoriello, who turned the New Jersey Devils into a three-time Stanley Cup champion. Nashville Predators’ John Hynes. Former NHL coaches Ron Wilson, David Quinn and Jack Capuano. Digit Murphy, a giant in the early days of women’s college hockey and a driving force in professional women’s hockey. And there’s many more, too.

It’s extraordinary that this collection of coaching talent all came from a compact rectangle measuring just 48 miles north to south and 37 miles east to west – all of 1, 214 square miles. You can fit 70 Rhode Islands in the state of Minnesota, 80 in Michigan. It has a population of just one million – a sixth of Minnesota, a tenth of Michigan. 

Rhode Island makes up for a its small size and population with an abundance of passion for the game of hockey.

“It’s a small state but it has a rich hockey tradition,” said Hynes on a quiet evening in rare three-day break in the Preds’ NHL schedule. “When I was in high school, it was a huge thing to play on Friday and Saturday nights. It was what you did on the weekends.”

Hynes grew up in Warwick, played at Tollgate High School, the top public school in the state, and then Boston University. When an injury cut his BU career short, he took his degree in education and went into coaching. He spent five seasons as head coach with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, had a stint in the American Hockey League, led the Devils for three seasons before taking the reins in Nashville in 2020.

Capuano, who spent seven seasons as head coach of the Islanders and is currently an associate coach with the Ottawa Senators, knows what Hynes is talking about when it comes to their state. 

“I always tell people: Don’t underestimate Rhode Island,” said Capuano, who played college hockey at the University of Maine. “There are so many people there who take pride in the game, good coaches who teach the fundamentals at a very young age and treat every player with the respect they deserve.”

Devotion to hockey was built over decades, in large part by the Providence Reds, a minor league team that played mainly in the American Hockey League from 1926 to 1977. And since Boston is only a short drive away, the excitement and enthusiasm for the Bruins, from the Bobby Orr era right up to today, has helped fuel the fire. The Bruins’ influence was only strengthened their AHL team, the Providence Bruins, set up shop in 1992.

“Having the Reds as a hometown team in the ’50s and ’60s created a lot of interest in hockey in Rhode Island,” said Quinn, who coached the New York Rangers for three years and this year helmed the U.S. Olympic and World Championship teams. “It carried over from generation to generation.”

At the grassroots level, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who shaped the youth scene in Rhode Island more than two legendary men. Bill Belisle coached at Mount St. Charles High School for 44 seasons, from 1975 to 2019, and won 32 state titles, including 26 in a row. Dick Ernst coached high school hockey for 52 years, from 1962 to 2014, mostly at Cranston East. He coached both boys and girls, and also coached tennis, winning multiple championships in both sports.

The success of those two coaches drove other coaches and players to strive to reach their level all across the state.

“If you grew up in Cranston, you wanted to play for Dick Ernst,” Capuano said.

Ernst passed away at 78 in 2019. Earlier this year, Rhode Island mourned the passing of Belisle, at the age of 92. 

There might be something in the water in Cranston, which is the home of Quinn, Capuano and Murphy. They all grew up about a mile from each other and not far from athletic fields that were flooded in winter, giving them and hundreds of other kids a place to skate for hours and hours all winter long.

Murphy – her real name is Margaret, Digit is derived from her maiden name, Degidio – grew up when girls’ hockey barely existed, but skated on those flooded fields and local rinks when her brother had practice. Her ability got her a spot on an early girls’ high school team and then Cornell University women’s squad. She left an executive job at a computer company to pursue coaching, landed as the women’s head coach at Brown and won more than 300 games over 21 seasons.

Since leaving Brown in 2011, she’s coached the Boston Blades three seasons, winning two Clarkson Cups, spend a year coaching China’s national women’s program, and now serves as president of the Toronto Six women’s team.

Lamoriello also had a big hand in setting the Rhode Island scene. He became a Reds stick boy at age 6, played hockey in high school, then at Providence College. He was working as a math teacher when he was hired to coach the PC freshmen team, and was named head coach in 1968.

In his 15 years behind the PC bench, he turned Providence a national power, and was a key force in creating Hockey East, one of college hockey’s premier conferences. Since 1988, the Hockey East champion has been awarded the Lamoriello Trophy.

In 1987, he was hired as president and general manager of the Devils, and became known for tough and shrewd management moves. The Devils won their first Cup in 1995, and did it again in 2000 and 2003. After 28 years with the Devils, he spent three seasons as G.M. of the Maple Leafs and since 2018 has masterminded the revival of the New York Islanders.

“You have to look at Rhode Island as part of New England and the youth programs that were established,” he said. “You either play hockey if you’re gifted, or you coach.”

One of Lamoriello’s top players at Providence was a Canadian-born kid who had moved to Rhode Island. Ron Wilson has hockey in his blood. His father Larry and uncle Johnny were both NHLers. In one season at Providence, he led his conference in scoring and was second in the nation – as a defenseman. His assist and point totals in 1974-75 – 61 and 87, respectively – were NCAA records at the time.

In a 22-year career behind the bench, he coached the Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs. He and his old college coach also helped engineer one of the great American hockey triumphs. Wilson served as head coach and Lamoriello as general manager of the U.S. team in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey that reached the finals against Canada. After the two teams split the two games, Canada led 2-1 late in the third period of third game, but Wilson’s squad shocked with world with four goals in the final minutes. 

A Providence teammate of Wilson’s didn’t make his name as a coach but he also worth mentioning among Rhode Island products. Brian Burke was born in Providence, went to high school in Minnesota but returned home to skate for the Friars from 1973 to 1977. In 1987 was hired to the Canucks’ front office, and went on to hold other posts with the NHL, the Hartford Whalers, Ducks, and Leafs. For the past year, he’s been president of hockey operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Whether it’s the water or the influence of the Bruins or the intense high school hockey scene – it’s unclear exactly what the main factor has been in why Rhode Island has developed more than its share of high-level coaches. But Murphy has a theory of her own.

“There’s a network here of people who know people who know people,” she explained. “Rhode Island is a know-a-guy-state. You need a coach? I know a guy.”

That’s how they roll in little Rhode Island.

 

Neal Boudette is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Issue: 
2022-05

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