The twilight of a high-school hockey era and the dawn of a bold experiment coincided with the start of classes last week at Mount St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket.
Bill and Dave Belisle, coaching icons, will stand behind the bench for the last time during the 2018-19 season. A trio of coaches from the South Kent School Selects Academy in Connecticut will replace them and launch a new age-group program at Mount for the 2019-20 season.
In other words, after this coming season, the best hockey players at Mount St. Charles, recruited from near and far, will fill U15, U16 and U18 rosters and play a 50-game independent schedule. The best of the rest will compete in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League’s 22-game regular-season.
Mount announced the changes in August and promised more details this month.
The move is a response to the ongoing migration of top hockey players from high schools to prep schools, junior leagues and select programs not constrained by state high-school association rules and regulations. Such programs offer more practice and games as well as exposure to pro scouts and coaches from elite college programs. Mount adds top academics to that mix.
This is one of several efforts by Mount St. Charles President Alan Tenreiro to boost the school’s enrollment. Last year, 545 students attended Grades 6-12. Fewer than 200 boys, one of the smallest cohorts in the Interscholastic League, were in the high-school student body of 425.
Other changes include junior-high tuition slashed to $8,850 from about $13,000, resulting in a tripling of sixth-grade enrollment; free busing from points as distant as I-495; partnerships with CVS Health, Amica Insurance and Fidelity Investments; expanded library hours and a sandwich shop in the library; a turf field, and an equestrian program for 2019-2020.
Richard Lawrence, athletic director for 45 years and now senior A.D., told me the moves are “dramatic . . . and he (Tenreiro) feels that hockey can be the game changer.”
“The hockey thing is revolutionary . . . the showpiece,” Lawrence said. “He’s talking about having kids play under the Mount banner all the way down to 6 years old.”
The three coaches, Matt Plante, Devin Rask and Scott Gainey, produced championship teams at South Kent. Plante guided the U18 team to the 2018 USA Hockey National Championship. His U16 team won the 2017 New England Championship. His record from 2012 to 2018 was 300-54-37, a winning percentage of .815
Rask coached the U16 team to three national tournaments and four New England championships. Gainey led the U15 team to the 2018 national tournament.
Plante also coached at Hebron Academy in Maine and was an assistant with the Indiana Ice of the U.S. Hockey League. Rask, a second-team All-America at Providence College, has coached at PC, Connecticut and Wesleyan. Gainey played hockey at CCRI and has scouted for junior hockey teams in the U.S. and Canada.
Plante and Rask are the new co-directors of hockey operations and started work on the new program on Aug. 15. All three will coach next year.
Where does that leave the Belisles? After this season Bill, a 43-year coaching veteran and member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, will become coach emeritus and “involved in whatever program he wants to be involved in,” Tenreiro told the Providence Journal’s Mark Divver. Bill coached the Mounties to 32 state championships, 26 consecutive from 1978 to 2003.
Dave, with 38 years of experience, will be involved in some capacity, possibly with baseball as well. He played for his dad before joining him behind the bench.
Divver wrote that Dave Belisle, his brother Peter, the coach at UMass-Boston, and Mount alums Brian Boucher and Bryan Berard participated in the decision to change directions. Boucher is the strategic advisor to hockey operations and Berard the director of player development.
The Rhode Island Interscholastic League governs high school sports in the state and is watching this development with a keen eye. Mount St. Charles officials appeared before the league’s Principals Committee on Athletics during the summer and requested affiliate membership, which would allow the school to play some sports in the league and some outside the league. The committee requested more information and tabled the request.
“Right now, we don’t know what they are looking for. We have some concerns about what they are doing,” said Tom Mezzanote, the RIIL’s executive director. He declined to elaborate but added, “I think a lot of people out there are concerned.”
Lawrence said Mount St. Charles wishes to remain a “healthy member” of the Interscholastic League. The administration is well aware of the rules and regulations and the boys in the age-group hockey program will not participate in any sport in the Interscholastic League. “We will not violate. If they want to play lacrosse or baseball, we’ll find a place for them to play,” he said.
“I feel very strongly about our roots in the league, but we have to move dramatically to save our school,” Lawrence added. “The risk factor is great. We are at the forefront. Look around. Look at the landscape. What did the high-school landscape look like 10 years ago? It doesn’t look like that now. Anything and everything is possible. . . . We are moving forward. If we ever achieve our future, it will be like landing on the moon.”