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On a May afternoon weeks after the last game of the ice hockey season, coach Bill Hanson walked up the concrete steps of Boston's Catholic Memorial High School, where a group of his players were hanging out. Hanson doled out photocopies of the season's final U.S. scholastic coaches' poll, which the boys examined. "Oh, by the way," the coach said as he left, "you guys won the national championship."
Oh, by the way? Well, it was the Knights' third national title in four years. "I'm sure if it were the first one, it would have been different," says Joe Gray, 17, one of the team's alternate captains. "But the way Coach Hanson told us, he didn't make like it was that big a deal."
Indeed it was not. At Catholic Memorial—which is officially in West Roxbury. about 10 miles west of the heart of Boston—hockey championships are nearly as routine as math homework and Mass. Not only did the Knights win the national titles in 1991, '92 and '94, but since the 1985-86 season they have won eight Massachusetts state championships, including the last five in a row. Along the way Catholic Memorial has had a better winning percentage in Boston Garden, which hosts the stale tournament, than the arena's NHL resident, the Bruins. And former Knights have gone on to play for NCAA champions, for the U.S. Olympic team and at every echelon of pro hockey in North America. In a city that fostered one of the greatest dynasties in professional sports, the Boston Celtics, another dynasty has been forged by the teenage sons of doctors and accountants and postal workers at this modest all-boys' parochial school.
The defense of Catholic Memorial's most recent title began as soon as the 1994-95 team was picked. On the November day immediately following the final tryout (an audition known among school mothers as the Moment of Terror), Hanson led the Knights into a scrimmage against Tollgate High in Providence, R.I. Catholic Memorial had not yet had a single practice, yet the Knights performed as if it were midseason. Forwards covered seamlessly for fallen, beaten or risk-taking defensemen. Lines changed with striking facility. Only the Knights' passing game on the fly seemed imprecise, and that was mostly because Hanson put out lines that had never before skated together. Tollgate, which had been working out on the ice for the previous week and a half, skated much less cohesively, and the Knights cruised to an 8-2 victory.
The scrimmage gave rise to talk of another championship season. But around Catholic Memorial people are becoming kind of jaded. "This year the basketball team has a chance to win the state title, so then everybody in the school will go crazy," says 17-year-old Steve O'Brien, the hockey team's captain. "But they've almost stopped coming to our games."
On the road, however, the Knights are rarely treated with indifference. "We were up at a tournament in Vermont, and when we walked into the rink, the whole place was silent," says Gray. "Kids were over at the bench asking us for autographs, asking the water boy for autographs."
"And at Mount St. Charles, they're throwing tennis balls," says Joe Savioli, 17, the team's other alternate captain. "They're spitting on us."
"They had signs: CM GO HOME," adds Gray. "It was unreal. I mean, it was adults—parents!—not just kids."
"It was pretty fun, actually," Savioli says.
If there is a single reason for the program's enduring success, it is the man who for the past 20 years has built Catholic Memorial hockey in his own image: Hanson, the nation's 1993-94 high school Coach of the Year. The 45-year-old son of a South Boston electrician, Hanson brings a lunchpail work ethic to the job. He is a tough yet cordial man with an unflagging will to win.