WOONSOCKET — 42 seasons. Two first overall NHL draft picks. 32 state championship titles, 26 of them in a record-breaking streak from 1978 to 2003. More than 1,200 games. A win record on the verge of breaking 1,000.
Any way you add the numbers, Normand “Bill” Belisle’s long career as head coach at Mount St. Charles Academy equals an impressive legacy in the world of high school boys’ hockey. In November, Belisle added another title to his list when he was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
For the players who’ve joined his team over the years, which include numerous NHL draft picks and fellow Hall of Famer Mathieu Schneider, as well as his fellow coaches and school administration, the honor was long in coming. But for Belisle, 87, who continues to coach the team alongside his son, Dave, the recognition came almost as a surprise.
“I never expected this day to happen since I’ve been over here at Mount,” said Belisle. “I was in heaven, I’ll tell you, unbelievable. What a day it is, a blessing.”
Belisle, according to his players, was always about more than just the trophy. Despite his impressive record of state and national titles, and the intensity with which he pushed his players to achieve greater ends, his reputation around the school is for developing players into young men in all areas of life, not just hockey. Belisle’s methods, school administrators say, formed the whole person in accordance with the values of the school and the Brothers of the Sacred Heart.
“It’s an amazing experience. You learn he’s not only doing these things to make you a better hockey player, he makes you a better person,” said Jack Boisvert, a senior and team captain who recalls playing for Belisle at youth hockey camp before joining the team.
Though Belisle was officially inducted on November 30 during a ceremony at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, the school held a celebration for him in the Mount St. Charles cafeteria on Friday, December 16. Former players, school administrators and city officials visited to offer their congratulations, while current students lined up during their lunch hour to snap selfies and ask for the Hall of Famer’s autograph.
“When I started coaching, I started at the bottom of the ladder. I started with no pressure on,” said Belisle, who ignored the balloon-studded chair school officials had set up in the corner and opted instead to sit at a table with his team’s current seniors, eating a piece of cafeteria pizza in between interviews.
Dave Belisle, who has coached with his father since 1979, remembers that first season. He was a student and hockey player at Mount St. Charles when his father took the job as coach and recalls dreading the amount of work he knew they’d have to put in as a team.
“I was very reluctant to have my father as a coach because he was my youth hockey coach. All my friends wanted him to be coach, but I was reluctant,” said Dave, before admitting grudgingly, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Mount St. Charles won its first championship under Belisle in 1978, beginning a streak that would continue until the coach had grandsons old enough to take to the ice. During that time, the team produced numerous NHL players, including first overall draft picks Brian Lawton and Bryan Berard, and earned a reputation as a hockey powerhouse with Belisle at the helm.
“He’s taught them a work ethic, but he’s also taught them about passion,” said Dave. “The results are overwhelming. But it’s the process — it takes a lot of hard work.”
For Dave, it was the championship game of 2004, and the speech his father gave to the team after losing the game and conceding their championship streak to Toll Gate High School that demonstrated what Coach Belisle is all about.
“This is my proudest moment as a hockey coach,” Dave remembers his father saying. “It’s easy to win, but in order to be a champion, you got to know how to lose. This is the most important day.”
Everyone close to the older Belisle has their own favorite stories about his intensity. There was the strict closed practice rule, with the coach’s reputation for throwing out recruiters who tried to break it to observe the players, and the one exception he made for Bobby Orr. Then there was the 1983 season, when a skating accident put him in the hospital with a life-threatening skull fracture, only to return to the ice the following year. According to his grandson, James, who plays for the team as a senior, Belisle hasn’t slowed down.
As the afternoon drew to a close, the Hall of Fame coach continued to relive memories and receive congratulations from his many fans, including a representative of the mayor’s office who presented a certificate declaring December 16 “Bill Belisle Day” in the City of Woonsocket. Among the alumni who came out to offer their congratulations was former Quebec Nordique player Ed Lee, who played for Belisle during some of his first years as coach.
“You couldn’t make eye contact with him. It was like trying to go after a rattlesnake. He knew if you had one bad stride,” he recalled.
Lee holds the distinction of being the first Mount St. Charles player to be drafted into the NHL. Asked if he would have been drafted if not for Belisle, he laughed.
“No way. No one would have. He made players.”