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."
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.”