The freshman netminder was sore from a recent knee injury, and more than a little nervous, but Brian Boucher was having a great practice. His confidence was bubbling. It spilled over when he made a killer glove stop in a drill.
The next puck that came his way went through his pads. Whether or not he let down his guard, that’s how Bill Belisle saw it.
“That goal stunk,” came the shout. “Take a shower.”
Not only was Boucher sent to the locker room early, he spent the next week with the junior varsity. And he had to deal with an abrasive coach stopping practice to sarcastically inquire where his newest “superstar” preferred his highlight film to be shown that night on TV.
“The whole team was egging him on,” recalled Boucher, who played 13 years in the NHL and now does ice-level commentary for ESPN. “They knew he was ready to give it to me. That taught me that we had such a competitive group in practices. I was some ninth-grader who was successful at every level before I got there. Now I had to compete for every bit of ice.”
That was how Mount St. Charles Academy won state championships — 32 in Rhode Island, 26 of them in a row (1978-2003) — and developed talent, including two No. 1 overall NHL Draft picks, 20 draftees, upward of 70 Division 1 college players, and dozens more at other levels of the game. Bill Belisle was how.
Belisle, who died this past week at 92, won more than 1,000 games and turned the smallest US state into one of hockey’s richest farmlands. Two of the eight Americans to go first in the NHL Draft — Brian Lawton (1983) and Bryan Berard (1995) — came from the Woonsocket, R.I., school, as did Mathieu Schneider, Garth Snow, Keith Carney, Paul Guay, Jeff Jillson, and Boucher.
“From a school in Rhode Island?” Lawton said. “Come on.”
Belisle retired in 2019 after 44 years running the program, some three years after he was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame. The Mount has remained powerful since reshaping its high school program into an academy in 2018. This past week, the 14U (No. 4), 16U (No. 8), and 18U (No. 2) teams all held top-10 spots nationally at MyHockeyRankings.com.
Belisle knew his team had advantages, most notably its own rink, which was extremely uncommon at the time. Players had all the ice time they wanted. Belisle made sure they chewed it up.
“A lot of hard days down there,” Boucher said. “There were a lot of days I’d walk down the steps to the rink and have butterflies before practice. He got you out of your comfort zone. He got you to push yourself to places you didn’t know you could get to. That’s a hard thing to do with teenage kids.”
At 17, Lawton became the first American drafted No. 1 overall. When he was a newcomer, Belisle made him play two periods of junior varsity games — and dress alone in the JV room — before varsity matches.
“He never let you get ahead of yourself,” said Lawton, who played nine years in the NHL, became an agent and a general manager, and is now an NHL Network analyst. “He was a hard-ass. He was tough on you. But he made every player feel important.”
Seeing Lawton’s hunger, Belisle turned on the rink lights at 5:30 a.m., stickhandling and shooting on his own. There were ice-cold showers afterward. Then school, practice, and games. Then again, and again, with Belisle pushing and steering.
“For the guys who really wanted it, everything that you needed was available to you,” Lawton said. “He was a second father to me. He was a second father to every single player on the team.”
He had his quirks, too, that were of his time. In four decades, only school administrators were allowed to watch practices. The only outsider who was welcomed, Lawton said, was Bobby Orr.
“He was intense, right?” Boucher said. “But underneath that intensity, he loved hockey, he loved Mount St. Charles, he loved his players. Any coach that has those qualities, it’s gold.”
Handicapping men’s field for Olympics
Looking to improve on a seventh-place finish at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, the Americans will send a much younger, more skilled squad to Beijing next month.
College standouts such as Matty Beniers — one of 15 NCAA players — and veterans such as Steven Kampfer give the United States a chance, though the goaltending appears suspect.
The favorites going in: Russia, which is stocked with KHL players, and Canada, which could have Eric Staal (not playing in the NHL this season) as captain.
Don’t forget the Czechs, who will have David Krejci making plays. Krejci paid homage to his buddy, David Pastrnak, this past week by wearing No. 88 as he modeled the Lions’ new Olympic sweaters.
“I think that was just a photo shoot,” Pastrnak said. “A lot of kids back home wearing No. 46 because of him, you know. I think he’s going to stick with 46. Unless he’s trying to become scorer instead of playmaker.”
China, playing in a bracket with the US, Canada, and Germany, will surely finish last. The Dragons, currently ranked 32nd in the world, have finished no higher than 15th at the IIHF Worlds (and that was in 1982). The roster is mostly players from the KHL’s Chinese entry, Kunlun Red Star. Several North Americans are on the team, including former Bruins farmhand Jeremy Smith, ex-Boston University Terrier Brandon Yip, and defenseman Jake Chelios.
The latter, an undrafted Michigan State alum, spent five years mostly in the AHL (Carolina and Detroit organizations). He was born in Chicago in March 1991, a month before his dad’s team, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blackhawks, were upset by the Cinderella North Stars in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Chris Chelios, also from Chicago, is a four-time Olympian, three of those tournaments as Captain America. He is of Greek heritage.
“Obviously, his first choice would be to represent the US,” Chris Chelios said of his son. “He loves hockey. That was the only way for him to continue to play, to go to Germany or Russia or China. He appreciates the opportunity. He’s playing in the Olympics.”
Under IIHF rules, foreign athletes have to play at least two years in a country to qualify for a national team. Since China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, those players must temporarily renounce their native passports.
Marchand can talk a good game
Quite a week for Brad Marchand, who remained on a tear and had some of the best quips heard.
On his prodigious proboscis taking a vicious high stick from Washington’s Nic Dowd: “I’m just happy it wasn’t my teeth. I can deal with a broken nose, but missing these beautiful teeth of mine, that would have hurt.”
On the worst “injury” he ever thought he had, from blocking an Alex Ovechkin slapper: “The draw went directly to Ovi and I stepped out and he took a one-timer right into my foot. I was hobbled to the bench and I was yelling for the trainers: ‘It’s broken, it’s broken! I can’t move, it’s 100 percent broken!’ My whole foot just went numb. I thought it was at the time. I don’t think I missed a shift. I got back and I mean, it hurt, but it must have just hit a nerve or something. Guys gave it to me for that one for a while.”
On collecting a sparkling magenta cowboy hat from the TD Garden ice after his hat trick: “The hat speaks for itself. It just has sexy written all over it.”
On his rooting interests as a kid in Halifax, Nova Scotia: “I was always a Toronto fan growing up, as painful as that is to say now.”
Musing on censorship while being interviewed on TNT during his pregame skate: “Nowadays with the mics and everything you’ve got to be careful. There’s a lot less [chirping]. There’s some things you say, you’re like, ‘[expletive], I hope I didn’t say’ — right there!”
Something missing with Oilers
The Oilers entered the weekend 3 points out of a playoff spot (18-14-2). No wonder Connor McDavid was all but offering to pick up Evander Kane from the airport.
General manager Ken Holland turned heads around the league when, during a news conference, he balked at trading a first-round pick for a rental.
“I think the answer is in that locker room,” Holland said. “Why would I trade a first-round pick or one of our top prospects to have somebody give us a little bit of a boost, then next year we have a press conference and you’re asking me about secondary scoring again . . . the depth has to be built internally.”
Holland believes the growth of Ryan McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto, Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, Stuart Skinner, and Co. are how the Oilers will win.
“That’s how we did it in Detroit,” he said. “That’s how the best teams do it. It’s homegrown. It’s young people. It’s being patient.”
McDavid is 25 and Leon Draisaitl is 26. Holland’s roster probably isn’t worthy of a pure rental, but his first-rounder should be in play. It certainly hasn’t hurt Pittsburgh, which has been a contender for nearly the entire Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang era.
Since 2008, the Penguins have traded nine of their 13 first-round picks, under the management of Ray Shero (2006-14) and Jim Rutherford (2014-21).
They won the Stanley Cup in 2009, a year after acquiring Marian Hossa for a first. They went back-to-back in 2016-17, a year after giving up first-rounders in deals for Phil Kessel and David Perron. They moved the latter for Carl Hagelin, who became a Cup contributor.
The Penguins had a goalie and a capable defense. The Oilers have neither. But they do have those two stars, aching for help.
Skill up and down the lineup
The NHL’s skills revolution has reached the point that even bottom-of-the-lineup forwards such as Vancouver’s Tyler Motte are using high-level moves. When a puck reached him at the side of the goal in Thursday’s game against Tampa Bay, Motte scored on superstar netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy by pulling the puck between his legs and flicking it short side, top shelf.
Motte didn’t have the time and space to do much else, so he got the shot off as quickly as he could. Of course it was flashy. But it was the right play.
“I love where these kids are at in terms of their preparation. I love their attitudes,” Brian Lawton of NHL Network said. “If I made a pass behind my back in practice, I’d get lit up. ‘Don’t play that way. Why would you do that?’ ‘I dunno, because it was the easiest play to make and the guy was open and I executed it.’ ‘Yeah, but that’s not right.’ ‘Oh, OK.’ I thought it was stupid.”
Contrast today with Lawton’s rookie year in Minnesota, when he spent six full games dressed but didn’t see a single shift (“humiliating,” he said). In the playoffs, coach Bill Mahoney asked him — a 6-foot, 168-pound scorer — to stir up trouble.
“Kids today will look you in the eye and say, ‘That’s [expletive expletive],’ ” Lawton said.
Speaking of skill: If the NHL can’t find a way to get Trevor Zegras involved in the All-Star festivities, it has failed. One of the game’s most charismatic players. Get him on TV doing something . . . The omission of Nazem Kadri, top five in scoring entering the weekend, had Colorado teammate Nathan MacKinnon ripping the “each team gets a spot” rule: “It’s an All-Star Game, not a Participation Game.” The real All-Stars, of course, are voted on at season’s end by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association . . . On ESPN, Chris Chelios lobbied for 44-year-old Zdeno Chara to be named an All-Star, over deserving teammate Adam Pelech. “Please get him in there. He’s such a great guy,” said Chelios, perhaps the only defenseman in history that can top Big Z’s endurance . . . Bruins 2020 first-rounder Mason Lohrei, a freshman at Ohio State, entered the weekend tied for fourth in Division 1 in scoring by a defenseman (2-17–19 in 22 games). He also led all Boston draftees playing in college. The leading Black-and-Gold-wannabe scorer among Canadian juniors was 18-year-old center Brett Harrison (16-13–29 in 25 games for OHL Oshawa). Fabian Lysell (11-17–28 in 23 games for WHL Vancouver) had better per-game production . . . Boston Pride forward Evelina Raselli made the Swiss Olympic team. Former player Tereza Vanišová, now playing in Sweden, is on the Czech squad . . . Brian Boucher’s son, Tyler, left Boston University mid-freshman year for OHL Ottawa. “More games is what he needs,” the elder Boucher said, reasoning his son could play in 40-plus games this year. “You’ve got to be ready when [the NHL] calls your name.” . . . Nashville might have the NHL’s strangest salary-cap situation: first in the West entering the weekend, somehow $10 million under the ceiling (per CapFriendly) with both albatross contracts (Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene making $8 million per year through 2025 and ‘26, respectively) and a Kyle Turris buyout ($2 million a year through 2027). Plus, Filip Forsberg (currently on COVID list) is on an expiring $6 million deal. Forsberg, 26, has every right to cash in. Will he do so in Music City? . . . Not a lot of reasons to watch Arizona, but Karel Vejmelka’s occasional Dominik Hasek impersonations would rank up there. He stopped 45 Toronto shots on Wednesday, and previously had a pair of 46-save nights against Winnipeg. Vejmelka, who turns 26 in May, arrived in North America around the same time as the Dominator (26), who didn’t hit his peak until 29 . . . Gary Bettman threw eau froide on Quebec’s interest in an NHL return, saying after a meeting with officials there that the league was “not aware of any opportunity that could address that interest at the current time.” Nouveaux Nords? No. A timeshare team, similar to that being hashed out by Montreal and Tampa Bay in baseball, would be unlikely. A flight from Phoenix to Quebec City, with a connection in Toronto, takes about seven hours . . . Meanwhile, the City of Glendale announced a $50 million plan to revitalize Gila River Arena — after the Coyotes leave this spring. Ouch . . . TNT’s broadcast coverage remains superior to ESPN, to these eyes and ears. Better production , looser atmosphere — and something different, like an intermission segment where studio analysts Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter, Rick Tocchet, and host Liam McHugh went out back and tried to break composite sticks. Goofy? Absolutely. But entertaining.