Half a century apart, two very different coaches have been instrumental in making the hockey team of a New England parochial school the national high school champion. The first, a whimsical little brother of the Sacred Heart, did it in 1935. The second, a hard-bitten rink rat from just across town, has done it five times in the last five years.
The school is Mount Saint Charles Academy, situated high on a hill in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Down the road a ways is the rink, a structure that had been an airplane hangar in World War II. When it opened for hockey in 1962, it was the first enclosed rink at any New England high school.
What has gone on recently at that rink has drawn hosannas and cries of "Mon Dieu!" for in the area are 16,254 citizens of French-Canadian descent. In 1975 one of that number, Bill Belisle, who had played on Mount Saint Charles's 1947 state championship team, became the coach. Belisle had been a truck driver, construction worker, player for the semi-pro Worcester Warriors and Springfield Indians and finally assistant coach at his alma mater. "When I started coaching, the team was in last place," he says. "It was fortunate for me to take it at the bottom of the heap. Goodness sakes—there was no pressure at all!"
Belisle responded well to no pressure. The Mounties were 29-8-1 in his first season, and from 1976 through '82 they won 94 straight Metropolitan A Division games en route to seven conference titles. Mount Saint Charles has been state champ since 1978 and, according to a poll by the National Sports News Service in Edina, Minn., national champion since 1980. While outscoring opponents 2,037 to 540, Belisle's teams have won 272 games, lost 18 and tied five in nine seasons. Eighteen of his players have made first-team all-state. Five have been drafted by National Hockey League teams in the past two years, including Minnesota North Star Brian Lawton, who in '83 became the first American in NHL history to be picked No. 1 in the draft.
That's the latest news—that's what everyone's talking about. But there's more, and better. Behind the discernible, provable facts of the country's best, high school hockey team lies the legend. For this, one has to go way back to 1911. Brother Adelard Beaudet travels south from Quebec. He arrives in Rhode Island with a cross on his chest and a hockey stick over his shoulder. He is a missionary of dual purpose, coming to teach the children the way of the Lord and of the slap shot. Eventually he organizes the country's first interscholastic hockey league, then coaches his youthful Mount Saint Charles team to national championships. Or so the legend goes.
But as with most legends, only some of it is fact: Adelard did help form one of the nation's first youth leagues. Yes, his Mount Saint Charles teams were as good as any in the country, but they weren't as youthful as you might imagine. The truth is. Brother Adelard was importing Canadian talent to Woonsocket. Adelard will tell you so, and he's still around to do so. Last Feb. 5, his 100th birthday, was Brother Adelard Day throughout Rhode Island, and he received letters from President Reagan and Bobby Orr as well as plaques from Pope John Paul II and Jean Beliveau, patron saint of the Montreal Canadiens.
As a 10-year-old, Adelard had learned to skate on the frozen Saint Lawrence River near his home in Saint Jean Deschaillons, Quebec. In 1904, at 20, he took his vows and seven years later was sent to Sacred Heart Academy in Central Falls, R.I., to spread the Word, not start the Hockey. Nevertheless, "Right away I started it," he says. "They didn't have any sticks. We had to go to the wood and get some branches and flatten them. Then we went to a pond near the city. We used rocks on the ice for goals and school books for shin pads. We played one hour without time-outs or penalties, and we had no zones."
Adelard spent 13 years shaping sticks for the boys of Sacred Heart before he was transferred to Mount Saint Charles in neighboring Woonsocket. Switching from the classroom to the front office, Adelard would serve 30 years at the school, most of them as "a treasurer without money, because of the Depression."
When he wasn't balancing the books, Adelard could be found playing hockey with the boys on a rink he'd designed. As Adelard recalls, "We started a little league with La Salle Academy of Providence and Mount Saint Charles and Classical and Central High in Providence. Then hockey took a big growth and there were teams all over."
When the competition stiffened, Adelard expanded his efforts. "So I imported some players from Canada. I had scouts up there," he says. His agents were fellow brethren in Quebec, who told skaters of the wonderful experience a few years in the U.S. would provide. "Goodness sakes!" says Belisle admiringly. "Those players he brought in—they were pros!"