Correction: Because of a reporting error, the name of the rink in Holyoke used by the Westfield State men's hockey team for home games in the late 1980s was incorrect in a story about US Olympic coach Peter Laviolette in the Feb. 9 Sports section. The rink is Fitzpatrick Arena.
Peter Laviolette's hockey career was over, and his mother, father, and two sisters came to the rink that night to say a public, somewhat melancholy goodbye. They carried along a bedsheet to unfurl in the stands, their heartfelt, if premature, farewell spray-painted across the Laviolette linen.
''Peter -- Thank You," read the laundry the family so proudly hung out in public, ''For 16 Great Years of Hockey."
''Yeah, that was it, it was over," his father, a.k.a. Big Pete, said earlier this week, recalling how his son's career ended at Westfield State College in the spring of 1986. ''He had started playing at age 5, and this was it, the end. No more hockey. The way it turned out, he didn't even play that game because he was hurt. But heck, we hung the sign anyway."
Peter Laviolette, now 41 years old and 20 more years into his delayed retirement, will be Team USA's head coach when the Yanks suit up in the Olympics next week in Turin. The favorite son of Franklin, whose earliest hockey days were spent as the 5-year-old mascot of the Franklin Flyers Pee Wee B team, is also one of the NHL's most successful coaches this season, keeping the red-hot Carolina Hurricanes at the top of the overall standings since the start of play in October.
Along the way, from that night his career so unceremoniously did not end, Laviolette went on to an 11-year minor-pro career, twice played for the USA Olympic team (including a stint as captain in 1994), and won the American Hockey League championship (Calder Cup) as the head coach of the Providence Bruins in '99. Then, after a year as a Boston assistant coach, and losing out to Robbie Ftorek in a bid to succeed Mike Keenan on Causeway Street, he went on to coach the do-nothing Islanders into the playoffs in the springs of 2002 and '03, snapping a futility streak in Uniondale, N.Y., of seven straight years.
What we have here is a story line that ranges from the endearing to the near unbelievable, the underpinnings of which is simple hard work, a man's commitment to a game he clearly loves, and, as usual, a bit of serendipity that might be the biggest factor in all of it, including Laviolette's impending third trip to Olympus.
''In both '88 and '94, I remember thinking just how incredibly lucky I was," Laviolette said last week, as he and the rest of the Team USA management team worked on the unending details of preparing for the trip overseas. ''And I also remember how disappointed I was when the Games were over and we didn't do very well -- especially '94, I cried harder after that than any time in my life. You get so wrapped up. You invest so much, and then . . . "
The luck that wandered into Laviolette's rink came in the form of an unnoticed visitor to one of Westfield's games in the spring of '86, weeks, if not days, before all the Laviolettes were figuring it was time for young Pete to get on with his life. After all, Westfield was a Division 3 program, struggling to stay alive, and no one on the Owls realistically considered hockey to be in their life-after-hockey plans. Laviolette was a business major, thinking he probably would return to Franklin, perhaps help his father in the family-owned garage door business, or maybe open a restaurant.
''Let me tell you what it was like," said Jay Toranto, a fellow Owl from Chelmsford and Laviolette's close friend and roommate for four years at Westfield. ''Our rink [the state-operated MacKenzie Rink in Holyoke] was about a half-hour away, and not much of the student body ever went to the games. You know, just a few bleachers, colder than hell. But Pete and I played for another team, the 'Has Beens,' in the intramural street hockey league we had on campus. No one came to the hockey games, but the gym was packed -- I mean jammed -- for floor hockey. It was all about bragging rights . . . who would win the floor hockey. And you know, we won it, twice -- a pretty good thing."
''You ever been to Holyoke?" Cerrone said earlier this week, reached at his retirement home in Fort Myers, Fla. ''I mean, dreadful. What the hell would anyone want to be there for -- I mean, not a place you'd even want to pull over for a cup of coffee. Forget it."
Cerrone, then 56, somehow ''got all turned around and screwed up" while searching Western Mass. for a prep school game. When he pulled over to ask directions to the rink, a passerby figured the scout had to be looking for the Westfield State game, and within minutes Cerrone was rinkside at a game neither he nor nearly anyone else knew was under way.
''I figured, 'What the heck, I'll stay,' " said Cerrone, recalling the night he found ''his grandson," as he calls Laviolette. ''You only have so much time as a scout, and I didn't want to waste the whole day looking for a prep school. And, you know, you just never know where you'll find a walnut. I saw this kid, Laviolette, and two things stuck out: 1. his skating -- I loved it -- and it's always skating that catches your eye first. And No. 2: I loved his on-ice demeanor. You could see him take charge, almost like he was saying, 'OK, I'm the boss here.' "
It wasn't until after Laviolette's season ended, and the bedsheet had been unfurled, that Cerrone contacted the future head coach of the US Olympic team. Joe Lyons, then a Bruins scout, ran a summer league out of Pilgrim Arena in Hingham, and Cerrone, who ran and coached a team in the league, called Laviolette, introduced himself, and essentially told him he was on the team. And from there, with Cerrone his mentor, Laviolette earned an invite to the North Stars' training camp, which quickly led to a pro contract with the International Hockey League's Indianapolis Checkers.
''Everything in life for a reason, I guess," said Laviolette, crediting the connection with Cerrone as a launching point to his career. ''I'm a big believer in that. If not for Smokey's invitation, who knows?"
Like Cerrone, ex-coaches of Laviolette, as well as friends, family, and acquaintances, say they know what has kept it rolling for Laviolette. They typically bring up how hard he works, his attention to detail, his ability to communicate with his players, and, perhaps most important, his ability to engage players and make them enjoy playing for him. In today's pro game, that last attribute alone might be worth a gold medal.
''Always such a strong desire to succeed," said Bob Luccini, his coach from Franklin High days. ''I saw him when he was just a little kid, and that never changed, be it Franklin Youth Hockey or with us in high school -- and then in college it was just this never-say-die attitude. Westfield could be behind by eight goals in the third period, and he'd be out there -- diving in front of slap shots."
Michonski, his Westfield coach, couldn't believe Laviolette hadn't been scooped up out of high school by a Division 1 school such as Boston College or Notre Dame.
''Classic overachiever who would do everything I asked, and more," said Michonski, who resigned halfway through Laviolette's junior year, in part, he said, because of the budget struggles that led to the program's demise three years after Laviolette graduated. ''We beat West Point his junior year, right there in Holyoke, and I said on TV after the game that I wouldn't be surprised if he made the NHL one day. Well, my buddies really busted on me for that for quite a while -- but I was serious."
There was a near-comic confidence about Laviolette, recalled Toranto, that players on the club appreciated and, to some extent, rallied around. Before all opening faceoffs, the Owls would gather around their net, and captain Laviolette, with the slightest smile, would implore them to let him carry the show.
''He'd say, 'Gee, guys, whaddya think, do you want to hop on my back now -- or do you think we ought to play this one as a team?' " said Toranto, who these days is vice president, sales and marketing, for Vision Appraisal Technology in Northborough. ''It wasn't cocky, not in the least . . . and we'd give it back, saying, 'Heck, Pete, let's give it a team shot tonight, OK?' We'd be out there again for the second period, down a couple of goals usually, and he'd still have it going, 'Uh, guys, we aren't doing so well -- are you going to hop on my back or what?' He was definitely our star, but I think everyone was OK with that."
Toranto and Laviolette were work pals, too, laboring together through college at convenience stores and UPS. The UPS shift would begin at 11 p.m. and end at 5 a.m. The Owls typically practiced at 5 a.m. and there were some hectic races, recalled Toranto, to unload the last UPS trailer and make it to the skate on time. They also shared an on-campus sponsorship for Miller Lite, a gig that paid about $100 a month.
''I've loved hockey forever," said Helen, ''going back to the [Bobby] Orr, [Phil] Esposito, [Derek] Sanderson, and Pie McKenzie days. That was the only game in town back then. You made sure you were home by 5 p.m. to have dinner, just to make sure you saw the game. I get a chuckle now when I watch games, and between periods they interview Canadian kids who talk about playing outdoors when it was 12 below zero. Well, hey, my son did that, too, not just the Canadians."
Ed Anderson, the former chairman and CEO of the Providence Bruins, helped Laviolette land the job behind the Providence bench in the summer of 1998 after the AHL franchise suffered through a disastrous 1997-98 season as league chumps. The following spring, the Providence Bruins were the Calder Cup champs.
''It's his personality, his attitude, his aptitude for the game," said Anderson, working through his what-makes-Laviolette-successful checklist. ''He has this great ability to communicate his ideas, and then you just watch the players buy into his program. They play hard for him. Everything that's come to him in life, he's worked hard for. He didn't go to a hockey mecca in college. He didn't get drafted. But he fought like hell, and got noticed."
Now, on the Olympic stage, the whole world will be watching Laviolette and his red-white-and-blue underdogs. Not surprisingly, the wise old Owl has his pitch planned for the boys who will arrive in Turin Sunday and Monday. The US opens play Wednesday against Latvia.
''For some of these guys, this could be their last chance at the Olympics," said Laviolette, noting some of the USA graybeards such as Chris Chelios, Doug Weight, Mike Modano, and Bill Guerin. ''In your life, how many times do you get the chance to do something great? I know people don't like our team. They aren't picking our team to do much. But I know we can go over there and do great things."
Twenty years after hockey ended for Laviolette, who's to say he's wrong?