Just Win, Baby
This article appears in the December 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Providence Bruins forward Brendan Walsh vividly recalls fighting back tears in the Omaha Lancers' locker room following the seventh game of the United States Hockey League regular season back when he was 19. His teammates probably figured he had something in his eye.
After all, the season hadn't started splendidly, but they had sandwiched a three-game winning streak between a pair of two-game losing skids. Battling to keep his inner feelings from becoming any more evident, Walsh was, nonetheless, nearly inconsolable.
"I'll never forget that," says Walsh, 30, a Dorchester native and 1993 graduate of Catholic Memorial. "We had some big guns there who'd played for some big-time junior hockey programs, and I'm looking around the room and it's no big deal to them. To me, we'd lost our first two and now we'd lost another two in a row and I couldn't process it. I hadn't lost four games in four years at CM. It really hit home to me that losing is contagious and that CM instills that desire to win every place you play."
For Catholic Memorial hockey, winning is everything. But lest that declaration be misinterpreted, it deserves clarification. Winning is everything at CM because all CM does is win.
Consider the numbers. The Knights have won 15 state titles in the past 19 seasons, including 11 of the 14 Super 8 crowns since the Division 1A tournament's inception in 1991. In fact, CM has won every Super 8 final it's played in but one, along with six mythical national championships (awarded by USA Today and the National High School Sports Service). Since the end of the 1984-85 season, the Knights own a 166-22 record in the Catholic Conference and a 74-10 postseason mark. The school has also produced a whopping 37 pro draft picks since head coach Bill Hanson's tenure began in 1974.
"It sounds cliché, but the kids in the program play hard for the name on the front of the uniform, not the one on the back," says 32nd-year goalies coach Jack Busalacchi, 55. "The kids really buy into the notion that they can't let down the people who've played there before them. We get a lot of sons of fathers, younger brothers and kids from the same neighborhood who come through the program as well. That feeds on itself and brings out the best in these kids."
Impressive, yes. But tradition doesn't win games. However, a painstakingly nurtured hockey culture can tilt the ice in a program's favor, game to game and year to year. A sort of self-sustaining chemical reaction.
"There are subtle reminders from the moment you walk through the school's doors," says Walsh. "All those banners hanging in the gym. The support of the student body. The most unremarkable kid roaming the hallways during the day becomes, in the stands that night, as important a puzzle piece as the first-line center. As soon as you get to CM, you don't just show up and play anymore. You're instilled with a pride and quiet confidence. You realize, ‘We are CM. We'll find that little bit extra tonight.'"
"I went to the lower school (seventh and eighth grade) and you just grow up with it," agrees 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior defenseman Mike Devin, 17, a co-captain along with twin brother and forward Joe Devin. "As a kid, you see what you want to be."
OK, so there's a multi-megaton goose-pimple factor at this school. The people who know it best don't just talk about CM hockey. They talk about it in a way that begs for the theme song from "Rudy" to be their soundtrack.
Regardless, the legacy has to weigh heavy.
Hanson enters this season with 461 career wins, and CM squads are 374-53-25 overall since they began their stretch of playing for the state title 17 times in 19 seasons in 1985-86. In 346 of their last 452 games, CM teams have allowed two goals or less. And since the start of the run, the Knights are 42-16-1 against rival BC High, the only program in the state to demonstrate an ability to consistently skate with CM.
To the extent that level of success is insisted upon, it could create, should create and does create pressure to perform. There is, some argue, a prioritization of winning to a fault.
For example, CM practices at 9 a.m. every New Year's Day. And in 2003, Hanson was suspended for most of the first half of the season after the MIAA ruled he violated state association rules by holding preseason practices (conducted by former NHL forward and CM alumnus Chris Nilan) between Nov. 17-26 of 2002.
"There's definitely pressure, but it's what you thrive on," says Joe Devin, a 6-foot-1, 197-pound junior center who's helped the Knights to a pair of Super 8 crowns and a 38-8-4 record over the past two seasons. "Everyone is looking to you to win. It's all positive pressure."
Remarkably, Walsh, who came to CM when Joe Devin was not yet 2, uses precisely the same words: "You can get that in-game sweat in a team meeting at CM when it gets intense and somebody calls you out. It's this positive pressure to be the best."
"Everyone is counting on you not to let any of the guys that came before you down," adds Mike Devin.
So, it seems, all this is truly and genuinely about what Busalacchi refers to as playing hard for the name on the front of the uniform, not the back.
"There really is something about putting on that uniform," says 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior right wing Bobby Sandberg, 17. "When we suit up before a game, there's no other feeling like it. You hear the crowd upstairs in the stands. You skate every shift with all-out intensity. You skate knowing that if you mess up, you may not see the ice again that day. It's not like you make this team and you relax because you're on the team. You make this team and you play for your next ice time at every practice."
By all accounts, Hanson is the architect of this masterpiece. In the course of interviews with Busalacchi, Walsh, Joe Devin and athletic director Alex Campea, now in his 21st year at CM, all four uttered the phrase: "It all starts with Hanson."
It's easy to see why. With the exception of a 1989 state finals loss to Don Bosco, a 2002 Super 8 finals setback to BC High, and state semifinals losses in 1996 and '97, Catholic Memorial has won every Division 1 or 1A ice hockey state championship since Ronald Reagan began his second term as president.
"These kids can turn on the TV to watch college hockey on any given weekend and see a CM alum playing in the Hockey East or some other major national program," says Hanson, 55, who is entering his 30th year as head coach (his second season with the program was spent as associate head coach in 1975-76). "They expect to be part of that legacy. Whether it's upholding the tradition of how we wear the uniform or how our helmet decals are always straight or how we skate onto the ice in numerical order or how we remain motionless through every note of the national anthem or how you never carry your game uniform in a hockey bag, these kids love the discipline.
"Yeah, we practice every New Year's Day morning," he adds. "And you know what I tell them? No one else is doing this, guys. You know why? Because no one else is."
You said it, coach.