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Looking Back on My 65 Years in Hockey
By Dick Ernst
Sixty-five years ago as a 7-year-old wearing my dad's old figure ice skates and Saturday Evening Post magazines strapped to my shins at Cranston's Aquaduct skating pond, I became obsessed with hockey and the memories of all those years are still vivid.
As a ninth grader in 1953, I formed Cranston's first youth hockey team?the Hoot Mons. For games, we played youth teams from Burrillville and the R. I. Auditorium Rink Rats. Within a few years Cranston became a hotbed of youth hockey, and playing for Cranston High throughout 1954, '55 and '56 was the most exciting time in my life.
Al Soares was an All State teammate who later became a Brown
University hockey coach. High school hockey was different then. We would wake at 3:30 a.m., get to the R. I. Auditorium off North Main Street and scrape the ice, water down a new sheet, play from 4:30 to 6:30 before heading to school. After school we would shovel snow off the frozen Cranston Pool so we could skate the next day, only to see it snow again--heartbreaking. Loading my '49 Ford with equipment and players (a few hanging a ride on the back bumper), and sliding on snowy roads to pond practices was great fun.
It was all worth it when in 1956 I became the captain and an All-Stater, playing before 5,000 people in big playoff games at the R. I. Auditorium. I prepped at Bridgton Academy in Maine along with my friend, Rod McGarry who became one of Brown University's greatest goaltenders. Following Bridgton, I played for Providence College and Tom Eccleston for four years. As a senior, my linemate was Lou Lamoriello. That year I received the Mal Brown Award for sportsmanship, honor and courage.
In the fall of 1961 I began my coaching career at North Providence High. During those years I was also playing amateur and semi-pro hockey in New England with my high-scoring linemate, Don Hebert. In March of 1960 our Providence amateur team played in the New England Championships at the Lewiston (Maine) Civic Center.
Playing against the Lewiston team at the start of the second period, I faced off against their center when all of a sudden several thousand fans stood and began to cheer. Their center was replaced by Dick Rodenheiser who had flown in from Squaw Valley, got off the plane at Logan Airport, and drove to Maine. He was one of the stars of the 1960 Olympic team which beat the Russians and went on to win the Gold Medal?a tremendous achievement twenty years before the more remembered 1980 win. I'll never forget this moment in Lewiston. Playing on the 1965 Eastern National team for Jack Kirrane, the captain of the 1960 U. S. Olympic team, was another huge thrill.
During the early 1960s, getting back late to Rhode Island from semi-pro tournaments in Waterville, Maine, I'd drive to the North Providence High School parking lot, sleep in my car, teach school, then go to Meehan Auditorium to help Brown coach Jim Fullerton by scrimmaging with four other guys against their varsity, and eat supper before heading to the Auditorium for my N. P. high school practice.
In 1964 Eccleston retired and on his recommendation, I was offered the job. I declined because my dream was to coach at Cranston East some day. Zelio Toppazzini took the job and Lamoriello became his assistant. Six years later, 'Topper' retired and Lou began his fabulous career as coach-athletic director at Providence College, eventually moving on to the New Jersey Devils in the NHL. I often wonder what would have happened to Lou if I had taken that college job.
I still harbor some scary memories while at North Providence hockey: being accosted by thugs, and being threatened by a parent with a gun!
Among my many unique hockey defenses and strategies, I resorted to using two goalies in 1965 against the great Joe Cavanagh-led Cranston East team. Not realizing the situation, Joe won the opening face-off, raced around a defender, faked around the first goalie and looked up to see his shot blocked by the second goalie. After that season, Cavanagh and Curt Bennett?both seventeen?joined our amateur team to play the Manchester Blackhawks. I was thrilled to play on their line, and even scored a hat trick. Both 'boys' became All Americans in college, Curt, a ten-year National Hockey Leaguer.
In the 1970s I was playing for and promoting the Cranston Amateur team. We filled local arenas for our games such as a game in Cranston when I played against Cavanagh who had completed his career at Harvard and was playing for the Carling Black Label team. In one of my promotions, I raffled off a donkey. Unfortunately, we had to clear the donkey droppings off the ice before the game. Later that night, I woke up in a rescue truck with a concussion from a hard hit in the game.
As a hockey writer for the weekly Cranston Herald, I did six major columns in 1970 proposing a rink for the City of Cranston. The citizens got behind the idea and in 1971 the Cranston Veterans Memorial Ice Rink was built.
In 1967, I began my thirty-six year coaching career at Cranston East. In 2002, I was forced out because of legislation prohibiting retired teachers from coaching after we went 26-0 for a championship. Currently still coaching and really enjoying my La Salle girls team, I am the dean of high school hockey coaches?this is my 50th consecutive year coaching in the league. My 628 wins as a head coach is second in league history to Bill Belisle's record at Mount St. Charles.
I am the only coach to win championships at four different schools and to win state championships in the boys and girls leagues. A championship at North Providence, two state and a New England title as a Cranston East assistant, and three other East championships, as well as a North Smithfield championship, together with two LaSalle girls championships were big years for me; but there were many 'down' years as well.
My teams have recorded some of the biggest upsets in the history of the league. For instance, my North Providence team defeated the 1964 Cranston East state champs with Joe Cavanagh, Curt Bennett, and other great players. My Cranston East team beat the 1977 La Salle team when they were the last team to win the state championship before Mount started their 26-straight-win streak. We beat the 1975 East Providence team (state and New England champs with Billy Army and the Wilsons). We beat the 1984 Bishop Hendricken team with David Emma in the state semi-finals. We gave the 1985 Mount team with David Capuano their only loss of the year when they were state champs and rated #1 in the country. Last season my LaSalle girls team beat defending state champs Bay View twice.
Our 1984 East team played in the finals against Mount St. Charles?the only public school to do this in a 16-year span (1981-1986). We were the only public school to win a league game from Mount (1985) in a span of roughly twenty years. My three sons (Bob, Gordie and Andrew) were seven times Journal All State. No famous families' players (viz. Armys, Wilsons, Bennetts, Cavanaghs) had more hockey All State honors. Andrew was the 1987 Rhode Island and New England High School Scoring Champion, and Gordie was the 1985 Journal Honor Roll Boy. Bobby and Gordie played four years at Brown; Andy played professionally.
In 1970, I took a Rhode Island high school all-star team their teams. I am a former Coaches Association president and secretary-treasurer, and for ten years my family members kept the league scoring stats for the Journal-Bulletin. In 1975, my Cranston East team was the first high school team to play at the Civic Center. We played an all-star team from Sweden as part of a double-header with the Rhode Island Reds.
In 1980, six players from out of the East area got guardianships to play for me at Cranston East. I was charged with recruiting and fired. It became the biggest scandal in league history. After lawyers and court sessions, there was no wrong-doing found, and I was hired back.
In 1981, I coached with Mike DiSandro, the Johnston Bantam junior team. The team won the National Championship in Carmel, Indiana, in addition to other tournaments throughout the U.S. and Canada. My sons Bob and Gordie, along with Robert DiSandro, Jack Capuano, presently coaching the New York Islanders in the NHL, and David Quinn, for several years coaching in the American Hockey League, were stars on a team of outstanding players. In the championship game against Michigan, Gordie scored four goals in the 6-3 win.
These kids all started with me at the old Shipyard Ice Bowl in Edgewood when they were five and six years of age. My wife, Rollice, allowed me free rein, supporting me throughout all this. She is a fantastic hockey wife and mother and claims not to regret a day of it. Our first date in 1965 was (not surprisingly) a Rhode Island Reds hockey game at the old R. I. Auditorium.
I've had a wonderful hockey life, but it can only be valued because the man I am today who's taught his players sacrifice, commitment and to keep coming back from failure, is because of the boy I used to be.