Your Turn

Coach, Remembered

By Jay McGovern '73 (right)

His face is right there on the puck-a screened photo of his smiling face, looking up at me from the ice. The souvenir puck, the only one I could find in the house after a lifetime of playing hockey, was inscribed: "Bob Skinner Tribute, October 12, 2004."

What had served as a useful paperweight on the desk in my home office these last seven years now lay at my feet as I began a rare mid-winter skate on thick, black ice on the lake a few miles from my home. Encircled by a ring of bare trees, the lake stretched almost as far as you could shoot a puck-no one on the ice but Coach Skinner and me. For an old hockey player, older than I'd like to admit, it was skating heaven.

Bob Skinner was the assistant coach for men's ice hockey at Holy Cross from 1966 to 1974. He worked under Bill Kane, head coach from 1965 to 1976, another great guy who loved the game and the kids he coached. They blended their coaching styles in a way that got the most out of those who were lucky enough to lace up the skates for Holy Cross. Those two good men were an effective, if unlikely, team, working well together "behind the bench" at the old Worcester Arena in Webster Square in the years before the on-campus rink.

Many of my teammates from the Class of 1973 (Captain Rick Callahan, Steve Daly, Mike LaVigne, Joe Carey, Rich Pelletier, Pat Thornton, Mike Siclari) remain connected after all these years in no small part because of our hockey experience at Holy Cross and the influence of our revered coaches.

Coach Kane would sometimes stand aside and let his assistant have the locker room floor for a between-period speech (or, in some cases, rant). Many of our most touching memories of Coach Skinner were from these motivational talks. In the early 1970s, the Vietnam War was almost all consuming, particularly on college campuses. With Coach Skinner, the locker room was not immune from the social unrest, soul-searching and questioning that the war caused. He used the locker room to educate players about life and life's lessons. He had, by then, already mentored scores of young men, some of whom went right from college to serve in Southeast Asia, not to mention many more of his former Norwich University teammates and friends who were also serving their country.

Between periods of our games, Coach Skinner would sometimes read, always with great emotion, excerpts from letters he had received from his soldier friends stationed on a ship or fighting in some far-off jungle. And then, as though he were our platoon leader, he'd order us back out into hockey battle, having conveyed to us through the words of others what was really important in life.

"Coach Skinner used the locker room to educate players about life and life's lessons."

Not all his speeches were gems, of course. Once we were playing a school known for its strong hockey program, but not, perhaps, its academics. We were being throttled, losing 5-0 after just the first period. That day, before going back out on the ice for a continued drubbing, Coach Skinner offered us, his over-matched troops, some words of consolation: "They may be better hockey players than you ... but you are Holy Cross men, and they'll be working for you someday!" Most of us, as I recall, were not sure if those words of consolation really had the message we were looking for.

Back out on the ice, I found myself tangling in front of the net with a defenseman who was much bigger than me and certainly more committed to his hockey career than was I to mine. The ref blew the whistle, thankfully separating us before my diminutive frame was put at more risk. I looked up at that big, imposing defenseman and barked, "You'll be working for me someday!" He thought about that for a second and scowled, shooting back a withering retort that is not fit for print. My skating skills and survival instincts took over quickly as I skated backwards to exit the scene. Perhaps not all of our locker room pep talks were top-drawer.

Coach Skinner succumbed a couple of years ago to a variety of converging illnesses. In 2004, former players and friends gathered in the Hogan Campus Center Ballroom for a tribute to our ailing friend and leader. After dinner, he ambled up to the podium to the roar of thunderous applause to do what he loved to do-take over the room with his wit and rough-hewn charm. He was anchored to his portable green oxygen tank, wheeling it along side with the hissing plastic hose hanging from his bent frame. A crowd left Hogan that night having laughed and cried in another memorable encounter with Coach Skinner, and we left with that token now lying at my feet on the ice-a puck with his printed image on it.

I finished my early morning skate. At this point in my life, the effort to reach down to unlace the skates seems as exhausting as the skating itself. But despite the onset of some new aches and pains, it was a wonderful glide on black ice, through hockey heaven with Coach.

Jay McGovern '73, a nonprofit fundraiser, played hockey and four years of varsity soccer at Holy Cross, being named twice to the New England Collegiate All-Star Soccer Team. He lives with his wife, Susan, in Newburyport, Mass., close to their three daughters.