Dave Belisle never set out to be an overnight Internet sensation. Nor was he looking to be the voice of reason in what many view as a sea of insanity in the world of youth sports.
But that's exactly what happened when a private pep talk between one Little League coach and his team was shared with millions of viewers on a live ESPN broadcast.
Minutes after the Cumberland Americans' dream season came to an end with an 8-7 loss to a Chicago contingent at the 2014 Little League World Series, Belisle called his players to the fringes of the outfield grass for the last time.
His message was simple, but packed a powerful punch. As the tears cut a path down the 12-year-old cheeks caked with the dust and dirt of the baseball diamond, Belisle spoke from his heart about what the improbable run meant not only to the 57-year-old coach and his family but to one Rhode Island town and the entire New England region.
"Heads up high. I’ve gotta see your eyes, guys. There’s no disappointment in your effort — in the whole tournament, the whole season. It’s been an incredible journey. We fought. Look at the score – 8-7, 12-10 in hits. We came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!
Even though he agreed to wear a microphone for the ESPN broadcast, Belisle didn't know that it was still on and his message was being sent out to over the airwaves. He didn't realize the impact his words had until the next morning when the Cumberland players were buzzing about how their coach had literally become an overnight sensation.
"The next day we woke up and all the kids were so excited. They said, 'Coach, your speech. You're going viral.' I didn't know what that meant," he said after the video had been watched and shared more than 500,000 times in less than 24 hours.
"You had the whole place jumping, you had the whole state jumping, you had New England jumping, you had ESPN jumping. And you want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don't quit. They guys who play the game the right way.”
Belisle's post game speech was a page taken directly from his father's playbook. Back when he was a youngster playing baseball in Manville, R.I., his father Bill taking his team into the outfield after each game, win or lose, to discuss what they did right and what they needed to work on. Then they would join hands and shout out their team name before heading in to meet their parents.
"When I started coaching, no matter if it was a Rec team or in tee ball, I'd always take my kids to the outfield and regroup," he said.
“The lessons you guys have learned along the journey, you’re never going to forget. When you walk around this ballpark in the next couple of days, they’re going to look at you and say: ‘Hey, you guys were awesome!’”
It's one of the many lessons the second oldest Belisle boy learned from his father. For 42 years, and counting, Bill Belisle has been shaping the lives of young men in Rhode Island as the head hockey coach of the prep powerhouse Mount Saint Charles. And that, more than his 990 career victories and 32 state titles is why the 87-year-old coach was enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday night.
"As tough as my dad sounds, and he is tough, in the end he is nurturing," Dave Belisle said. "He'll never let anyone fall through the cracks. Tough love has always been his way of teaching."
"There's no disappointment in your effort in this whole tournament or the whole season. It's been an incredible journey. The only reason why I'll probably end up shedding a tear is because this is the last time I'll probably end up coaching you guys. But I'm going to bring back, and the coaching staff is going to bring back something that nobody else can provide, and that's pride. You're going to take that with you for the rest of your life."
In the spring of 2014 the baseball field became something of an oasis for Belisle. His wife of 19 years, Nancy, was diagnosed with colon cancer. As the rock of the family, Nancy didn't want anyone to think of her as "the cancer lady. The person everybody is feeling sorry for."
With the support of his players and their parents, the Americans run to the Little League title was about more than just winning baseball games. For Nancy, it was about seeing her youngest son, John, have the same opportunity to compete in a Little League World Series as his older brother, James, had three years earlier.
"My wife didn't want anything for herself. It was all about John," Belisle said. "So we worked and we worked, practiced every day. We became so close and then when we played our hearts out in that game and we fought right up until the last strike. And then it was done."
“It’s OK to cry, because we’re not going to play baseball together anymore. But we’re going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be.”
Two years have passed since his words first hit the airwaves, and not a day goes by that someone doesn't mention how that message resonated with them.
"I'll be on the road making a sales call or I'll call somebody and they will say, 'Hey, you're the coach. Great job, great speech,'" he says. "I don't even have to ask them what they're talking about."
On a personal level, the speech still serves as a not-so-subtle reminder to take a step back from the heat of the game and realize what is truly important. First and foremost, it's about family. And it's about friends. And on Bill Belisle's big night there were plenty of both on hand in the downtown hotel ballroom to show their love and support. What the hard-edged coach gave to so many players over the years was being paid back in spades.
"I've learned that passion from my dad. He gave me a chance to coach and I love it. I think I love it more than playing," said Belisle, who continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with his 87-year-old father behind the bench at Mount Saint Charles.
“I love you guys. I’m gonna love you forever. You’ve given me the most precious moment in my athletic and coaching career, and I’ve been coaching a long time – a looooong time. I’m getting to be an old man. I need memories like this, I need kids like this. You’re all my boys. You’re the boys of summer.”
On Wednesday night the two stood shoulder to shoulder one more time as the son spoke for his father during his acceptance speech, reminding the capacity crowd, including fellow enshrines Craig Janney and members of the U.S. team that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, that a coach's impact on a young player extends well beyond any one game or season.
"You accomplish so much more and touch so many lives," Belisle said. "My dad taught me more about everything, more than just the game. He's taught me about life.
"I don't think you realize that when you're playing for him. But those things that you are learning about in the present you'll carry with you the rest of your life."
Many sports across the board have begun to see a decline in their number of officials. USA Hockey is no different, with numbers lagging slightly behind player growth.
With that in mind, USA Hockey has made a particularly concerted effort over the last couple of years to incentivize officials to stick around.
Not surprisingly that was the main topic discussed at the annual USA Hockey's Winter Meetings, according to National Referee-in-Chief Dave LaBuda.
“I'd say the overriding tone of the meeting was us talking about retention and trying to come up with ways in which to address that particular issue,” LaBuda said. “It's a very complex situation. There are a number of different factors that go into why an official decides not to stay registered. We can only address a certain number of those factors and the rest we have to hope fix themselves in some way.”
In an effort to be proactive, USA Hockey has implemented sweeping change in the registration process for existing officials.
It started by revamping the registration fees, and while some of the other minutiae is rather hard to digest, the most notable change is the reduction of registration requirements for officials that reach the Level 3 or Level 4 status.
As soon as an official has obtained Level 3 or Level 4 status for three consecutive years, they will become eligible to apply for tenured status. In order to attain that tenured status, officials must also attend what USA Hockey is calling an advanced officiating symposium.
“It's designed to encourage people to continue their level of registration and to advance to a higher level of registration,” LaBuda said. “Just getting them to climb that ladder and try to attain the highest level of registration will make them better officials, and in turn, improve the game.”
Essentially, USA Hockey wants to send a message to its officials, making it clear that their time is important to the organization.
“We understand that people's time nowadays is becoming tighter and tighter,” LaBuda said. “We wanted to make sure that we made the entire process as efficient as possible from a time standpoint.”
It seems to be working so far as USA Hockey has been able to stabilize its registration numbers over the last few years, according to LaBuda.
“We are starting to see some movement in that retention area,” LaBuda said. “It seems like every sport is experiencing a critical loss of officials to work their sport. We are hoping that these changes in the registration process will help us retain more officials down the road. It’s been a positive step in the right direction so far.”