Joe Bertagna, whose printout of jobs from a lifetime in hockey could fill a minimum three of his old goalie equipment bags, on Wednesday night will receive the Lester Patrick Award for his near half-century of “outstanding service to hockey in the United States.”
Bertagna, 72, will receive the award, presented annually by the NHL since 1966, at the Westin Copley Place Hotel. It’s also where that same night USA Hockey will induct its newest Hall of Fame honorees, including Dustin Brown, Brian Burke, Katie King Crowley, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Brian Murphy.
In 1966, Bertagna was just getting warmed up as an Arlington High (Class of ‘69) freshman goaltender, amid an era that proved to be the zenith of Massachusetts high school hockey. Two years later, he was in net for the Spy Ponders in the ‘68 playoffs at the Garden, his stellar work in net catching the eye of Harvard coach Bill Cleary, whose long career as a referee included working the schoolboy tourney at the Garden.
“Two weeks later, he’s calling me, and says, ‘Congratulations on winning the EMass title — I see you are a good student — would you ever think of going to Harvard?’ " recalled Bertagna, his voice a blend of wonderment and near-disbelief, even 55 years later. “And I’m thinking, ‘I’ve been a goalie for 18 months and I’ve got the Harvard coach calling me asking if I want to play Division 1 hockey.’ "
Such a tough one to answer.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ " said Bertagna, in feigned casualness. “I’m probably thinking, ‘This is really easy, this is great.’ He recruited me. I played every game his first two years as a coach. He recommended the ECAC internship, which really launched my administrative career, then he hired me to co-coach the [Harvard] JV hockey team, then hired me to coach the women’s hockey team.”
The overall point being, noted Bertagna, was that Cleary, who is planning to attend Wednesday’s ceremony, and the late Ed Burns, the legendary Arlington High coach, had profound influence on what ultimately became his life’s career and calling.
“Those two guys alone really were mentors who opened a bunch of doors,” Bertagna said. “The award is such an embarrassment of riches. Because you have this privileged life in hockey and then you get in your 70s and they are going to give you an award for it. Like a buddy of mine said to me recently, ‘It’s like somebody giving you a trophy on a Sunday night because you had a good weekend.’ I’ve had a really long, good weekend.”
Included in the expansive list of Bertagna’s jobs: He was the Bruins’ goalie coach for a stretch of the 1980s, including the spring of ‘88 when netminders Reggie Lemelin and Andy Moog were aboard on the Black and Gold team that beat the Canadiens in the playoffs for the first time in 44 years.
Bertagna perhaps is best known for his long tenures as commissioner of ECAC Hockey (15 years) and later Hockey East (23 years).
“The irony is, if you really want to know,” mused Bertagna, “all this came about because I didn’t want to grow up. I didn’t want to do what a lot of my friends were doing, putting on suit and tie and going into Boston to make money. I basically wanted to stretch out this adolescent period from school, go to work in September and you’re done in May. It was as much about as what I was avoiding as it was what I was pursuing. And these opportunities kept coming.”
The event is sold out. Otherwise, Bertagna likely would be working the Westin ticket window, after first writing, editing, and printing the program. “I never did the one spectacular thing. I just did a lot of things,” he said. “I am accepting this for all the people who haven’t done spectacular things, but just go out every day and do the routine. There’s a whole bunch of people in the amateur hockey community that don’t get this moment, but we all just go out and do our job every day.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.