Over the course of his 42 years in hockey, Bill Belisle has won close to 1,000 games and 32 state championships, including a remarkable 26 in a row. He also helped foster the NHL dreams of so many who played for him at Mount Saint Charles, a prep powerhouse in Woonsocket, R.I.
But the thing he is proudest of is the impact he has had on the lives of so many young men off the ice. His tough but caring nature helped them grow up, attend college, become successful and raise families of their own.
That gratitude was on display Wednesday night as one of the greatest coaches the game has ever known was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame along with long-time NHLer Craig Janney and the U.S. Team that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
"This is the best honor I've ever had in my hockey career. I've had a lot of honors but, I'll tell you, this one is the best. This is the top of the ladder. I can't climb anymore," Belisle said.
"This is something I'll never forget as long as I live and I hope I live a few more years."
After learning that he was being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2016, Belisle has received a steady stream of congratulatory calls and messages from former players.
Some messages, like the one from former player Garth Snow, who is now the general manager of the N.Y. Islanders, echoed the thoughts of so many:
"What took so long?"
Fellow Rhode Islander Lou Lamoriello, who is cut from the same rigid cloth as Belisle, echoed a similar sentiment.
"I don't know of anybody more qualified for it," said Lamoriello, a member of the 2012 class. "He's dedicated his life to his family and to United States hockey and to be recognized, there's no one more deserving."
Among the members of his star-studded teams who came here to pay their respects was Mathieu Schneider, who played for Belisle as a seventh and eighth grader. He remembers the coach who was more caught up in the process of developing good people more than just creating great hockey teams.
“Bill was the guy that really instilled that work ethic in me. There were no excuses. You came to practice every day to work, give 110 percent. There was nothing else," said Schneider, a 2015 inductee to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and an executive with the NHL Players' Association.
"He built men. It wasn’t just hockey players he was helping to develop, it was men. For every guy that came out of there and played college hockey and went on to play professional hockey, there’s probably 20 or 30 who had successful lives because of what they learned from Bill."
Another star who developed under Belisle’s wing was Brian Lawton, the first American player selected No. 1 overall in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. He was followed 12 years later by fellow Mount Saint Charles alum Bryan Berard, who was taken with the first pick in 1995 by the Ottawa Senators. Both also made the trip to honor their coach.
"I come from a great family with amazing parents," said Lawton, now an analyst with the NHL Network. "Coach Belisle is really like another parent for me, especially at a time in my life when you're still making decisions about who you are and how you're going to handle yourself.
"To have a role model like him, someone who stands for the good things that you want to become when you're a teenager. It was really a pleasure and something that I'm very thankful for. That's why I'm here tonight. I wanted to say 'thank you' for giving his life to not only myself but every player who came through Mount Saint Charles for so many years."
Belisle played for the Mounties from 1945-48. He was the arena manager at Brother Adelaide Arena when the previous coach took the assistant coaching job at Brown University in 1975. The principal Brother John Hebert asked Belisle if he would give coaching a shot. Two years later, the Mounties won the state championship and they haven't stopped winning since.
Now entering his 42nd season, Belisle shows no sign of slowing down. He continues to coach with his son, David, as he zeroes in on the 1,000-win mark.
If time has mellowed the now 87-year-old coach, those closest to him haven't noticed. He's still demands nothing but the best from his players. But that tough love is all designed to get the most out of his players, on and off the ice.
"I'm still coaching, but I can't skate because of my Achilles tendons," he said. "I sit on the bench and I yell. And if they can't hear me then I stand on the boards and yell even louder."
Long before Johnathan Morrison was the officiating advisory group leader for the International Paralympic Committee, he was a 30-something-year-old trying to find his way on the international circuit.
Little did Morrison know, a random phone call in October 2005 would change his life. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He had taken a puck to the face a month earlier and was still recovering from a broken cheekbone when Scott Brinkman gave him a ring.
As the officiating advisory group leader for the International Paralympic Committee at the time, Brinkman was inquiring to see if Morrison had any interest in officiating a three-team sled hockey tournament in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“He called and asked me if I wanted to get involved with the sport,” Morrison recalled. “Honestly, at that time I had never seen a game played. We were having this conversation about getting involved with the sport and he mentioned that there was an event in February 2006 that he wanted to send me to. It was kind of a chance for me to learn the ins and outs of the sport.”
Wait. There was more.
“He told me if I did good he would send me to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino,” Morrison said. “I had just moved to the Twin Cities and had just started working the WCHA and that would’ve been right in the middle of playoff time. I remember saying to Scott, ‘When exactly will I know if I’m going to go to Torino?’ I asked because I needed to tell my college supervisor that I was going to be gone for the playoffs. He goes, ‘Well, let me rephrase that. Congratulations. You’ve been selected to go to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino.’ I was like, ‘Oh crap. Here we go.’”
All of a sudden Morrison was on a crash course, trying to learn the ropes of sled hockey as fast as possible. He watched a bunch of DVDs to study the game as well as any YouTube clips he could get his hands on.
Then it was off to Colorado Springs without any sort of in-game experience.
“I got very lucky because the other individual that they sent to that event in Colorado Springs was a gentleman by the name of Scott McDonald,” Morrison said. “He had been around the sport for a long time and he basically taught me the game.”
While the differences were vast, especially considering Morrison had only ever worked with traditional hockey prior to that event, the biggest difference came down to positioning on the ice.
“Everything I knew about positioning basically got thrown out the window,” Morrison said. “You have to be on top of the play at all times because the penalties are much more subtle and much more difficult to see. You have a stick that’s only 100 centimeters long, so that hook is really hard to see.”
Besides that, Morrison also learned the hard way that certain plays look a heckuva lot different.
“A guy using his stick underneath his sled to try to shoot a puck in a motion for someone that hasn’t been around sled hockey looks a lot like he basically threw it with his hand,” Morrison said. “I remember I actually waved off a goal that I thought was put in with his hand and everybody else knew he put it in with his stick.”
That three-team sled hockey tournament, featuring the United States, Canada, and Germany, gave Morrison the confidence he needed heading into the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino.
“I had just worked a bunch of games at a really high level,” Morrison said. “I was seeing the best players, so I felt good. When I actually got to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino it was one of those things where I had to step up and get better every game. There was no choice.”
For Morrison, the first game of the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino was life-changing.
“When I was younger I was hoping to make the NHL (as an official),” Morrison said. “Once I was about 30 years old, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen, so I kind of switched mental gears and said, ‘OK. Let’s go the international route.’ Obviously the brass ring for the international route is the Olympics. That’s what I was pushing for. That’s what I thought I had my best shot at. Then all of a sudden I get this call that I am going to the Paralympics. It took my breath away. I had been working for something like that, and once it happened, all I wanted to do was get ready for it.”
Since then, Morrison has worked three more Paralympic Games (Vancouver, Sochi, and Pyeongchang) on top of handling his current role with the International Paralympic Committee.
In that position, Morrison works with the technical side of the sport, which basically focuses on our rulebooks, as well as the officiating development side of the sport, which essentially is a pathway that finds a way to get the most out of our officials. He also oversees the assigning of certain officials to certain tournaments
“I am looking for officials that have succeeded at some of the highest levels that show a passion for the sport,” Morrison said. “I’d say the passion for the sport is as important, if not more important, than what they have accomplished elsewhere. I don’t want the guy that calls me and is like, ‘Hey. I’m a good linesman. Can I go to the World Championships?’ Sorry. It doesn’t work that way. I want guys that actually love the sport.”
That became a focus based on his experiences with the sport over the better part of the last two decades. He has grown extremely passionate about it, and as the leader of the bunch, he wants every member of his officiating crews to feel the same way.
“I’ve been in this sport long enough and I know guys that have worked the Calder Cup and worked the Frozen Four that I could introduce them to sport the same way I was introduced and they’d do a good job,” Morrison said. “That said, I want that individual who is so passionate about the sport that they have taken a week out of their summer to come and train with us. I’m looking for someone who is passionate about the sport and I think we’ve done a good job with that so far.”