In what could be construed as an irony, one of the nation’s best high school boys ice hockey programs hails from the nation’s smallest state.
That prestigious program is Mt. St. Charles Academy of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. However, being from The Ocean State doesn’t seem to have diminished the Mounties’ success or stature.
Since 1933, Mt. St. Charles Academy has won 42 Rhode Island Interscholastic League state titles, and from 1978 to 2003, it won 26 consecutive state titles. In addition, the program won 94 consecutive games from 1977 to 1982. All three performances are national records, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) National High School Sports Record Book. The program is currently enjoying a streak of four consecutive state titles (2008-11).
Directing the Mounties’ on-ice fortunes since 1976 has been coach Bill Belisle, a 2000 inductee into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame. With a career record of 904-129-32 through the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, the 82-year-old Belisle is the nation’s winningest high school ice hockey coach. With that victory total, he holds a very comfortable 209-game lead over the runner-up in that particular record category
In addition, Belisle’s 87.9 winning percentage ranks as the best among coaches listed in the National High School Sports Record Book. Belisle is himself a Mt. St. Charles Academy alum, where he played hockey for its 1947 state championship team. As a person who once donned a playing uniform and now directs its current players, Belisle is well-qualified to speak to what makes this program tick.
“I think the secret to the success of the Mt. St. Charles Academy hockey program is pride and the sense of who you’re playing for,” Belisle said. “It’s not playing for yourself ‑ it’s playing for your team and for your school.
“I never thought about the state title streak while it was going on. We always took it year to year, and we always put the onus of the tradition of playing for your school on the seniors.”
Mt. St. Charles Academy, which is a private Catholic junior/senior high school with an enrollment of 1,000 students, opened in 1924 and is situated high on a hill in Woonsocket. Located down the road is its rink, which was used as an airplane hangar in World War II. When it opened for ice hockey in 1962, it was the first enclosed rink in any New England high school.
“We get great fan support at our games,” Belisle said.”Our rink’s seating capacity used to be a couple thousand, but due to fire codes, it’s now 600. However, we’ll still get 800 at the big games.”
Over the years, Mt. St. Charles Academy has proven to be a fertile breeding ground for future National Hockey League (NHL) players as 20 alumni have been drafted by the league. Among those players were Brian Lawton and Bryan Berard, who were drafted first overall in the NHL Entry Draft. That success helped further raise the program.
“Our talent back in the 1970s and 1980s was mostly local kids playing hockey,” Belisle explained. “The big thing that got us over the hump in terms of talent was the French-Canadian connection in the surrounding area due to Bobby Orr. Lawton was a Cumberland (Rhode Island) boy, but he was also a product of the Bobby Orr era. When he got drafted No. 1, that helped elevate our program.”
The story of the program has been told in at least two media manifestations, including John Gillooly’s book, “Pride on the Mount,” and in the 2006 documentary, “Ice Kings,” which includes material covered in the book along with insights from coach Belisle and alumni.
Gillooly, who is a national-award winning sportswriter for The Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island, was given complete access to the Mt. St. Charles Academy program for an entire year as he researched his book. Prior to that, Belisle always held closed practices in which he would not allow reporters or parents to watch practice or to enter the locker room.
With an illustrious coaching career and a lifetime of memories, Belisle can easily and fondly reminisce about many key events that helped shape his life.
“As look back on my career, three memories stand out. First, was getting the job at Mt. St. Charles Academy. Next was having the opportunity to coach my son Peter on our 1990 state championship team, while my other son, Dave, was the assistant coach.
“The third great memory was being inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame. To be with the people who were inducted in that same class was incredible. [Former standout National Basketball Association player] Kevin McHale sat at the same table as us. To get the highest award you can possibly get, there’s no other achievement for which I’m more gratified than this award.
At an age when most people have long since retired and are leisurely enjoying the fruits of life, Belisle still has that burning desire to coach and to give back.
“I still love the game of hockey, but more importantly, I love to teach,” Belisle said. “I still have what’s in my heart to give. If I have a purpose to get up in the morning to give something that’s beneficial to a young person, that’s what pushes me and keeps me going.”