Steve Hagwell came in at a tumultuous time for ECAC Hockey. It was March 2000 and Hagwell, the associate commissioner at the time, was conducting his first meeting with conference coaches in Lake Placid, New York.
“We came out of the coaches meeting, which didn't go well — I don't remember much of it,” Hagwell said. “But anyway, after the meeting, [Yale] coach Tim Taylor walked out into the lobby area and he came up to me and he said, ‘Joe Bertagna says you're a good guy, and that's good enough for me.’ And that sealed it for me. I mean, that says it all about Joe and how much help he was to me.”
Hagwell went on to be the commissioner of ECAC Hockey for 18 years before retiring this year. But who knows what would have happened had Bertagna not given Hagwell his endorsement. That is the kind of weight Bertagna earned through his stewardship of the ECAC and other hockey-related endeavors.
It is for that and many more reasons why the NHL named Bertagna, 71, the 2023 Lester Patrick Trophy winner for outstanding service to the sport. He will be honored Dec. 6 at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame ceremony in Boston, where Dustin Brown, Brian Burke, Katie King Crowley, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Murphy will be inducted as the Class of 2023.
Bertagna’s 15 years as the commissioner of the ECAC are a big part of his legacy, but he’s done much more to earn this prestigious honor.
He has more than 40 years of being a hockey administrator — including a 23-run as the commissioner of Hockey East that ended in 2020 — and 50 years running a goaltending school, with additional stints coaching netminders for the Boston Bruins and the 1994 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team.
Additionally, Bertagna was instrumental in getting women’s hockey organized at the collegiate level, becoming the first coach at his alma mater of Harvard when he helped launch the women’s program in 1977. He also has been the executive director of the American Hockey Coaches Association since the position was created in 1991 and is in his final season in that role.
Ben Smith, who coached the U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team to the inaugural Olympic gold medal for women’s hockey in 1998, often gets coffee with Bertagna as the two live in Gloucester, Massachusetts. While citing Bertagna’s effort to grow women’s hockey from its infancy, Smith said his friend’s personality is what makes him so effective in his many roles.
“He's extremely bright and he's got a sense of humor that you better be on your toes for because he can throw a zinger at somebody that a lot of times just goes right over people's heads,” Smith said with a chuckle. “A great guy to sit down and have a cup of coffee with or have a beer with. You know, it's one of the reasons why the guys play senior hockey. Hockey is fun, but the banter afterward really is the thing that brings the camaraderie and keeps the hockey juices flowing, and Joe would always be at the center of that group.”
Even with that sense of humor, Bertagna has never been afraid to see an issue for what it is.
“He's genuine. He is who he is,” Hagwell said. “Knowing him and being in the hockey world, my experience with him has always been [that] he does what's best for the sport, not for Joe Bertagna because Joe Bertagna is going to get something out of it.”
Those around him know what Bertagna has done for the sport of hockey — and those who don’t have probably been touched in some fashion by something he has done.
That makes this honor perfect for him.
“It's a great award and the award is being enhanced by bestowing it on Joe because he's the essence of what people in hockey are trying to promote in that regard,” Smith concluded. “Joe is more than deserving and has really carved out a wonderful niche in the game of hockey from coast to coast.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.