October 13, 2012

HockeyTown: Needham, Massachusetts

By Mike Zhe

It was a game that had something for everyone.

Forty-two years ago, high school teams from Needham and rival Walpole met in Braintree, Mass. There was no shortage of star power — Robbie Ftorek and goalie Cap Raeder for Needham, and defenseman Mike Milbury for Walpole. 

Robbie Ftorek, who led Needham’s legendary 1969-70 team, is regarded as the best  schoolboy player in Massachusetts history. (Photo courtesy of Needham High)

Walpole led, 3-1, late in the game. Legend has it that Ftorek skated over to Raeder and asked him how many goals he needed. Then he and his teammates pumped in four goals in a little under two minutes to stun the Rebels and win.

“That’s when Robbie put on a clinic and led them back,” said current Needham High School coach Bill Guisti, who grew up in Walpole. “Mike (Milbury) was still shaking his head about that the other night.”

In New England, the sport of hockey is woven so deeply into the fabric of so many communities. Whether cities or small towns, just about every community has a story to tell. Beginning this month in New England Hockey Journal, in our new “HockeyTown” feature, we’re going to tell some of the best, starting with Needham, Mass.

Hockey in Needham goes back generations. The 1944 team was crowned one of the first state champions in Massachusetts, the first of seven state titles the program would celebrate.

Today, Needham annually is one of the best programs in the state, a public school that’s become a fixture at the Super 8 tournament. Across town, St. Sebastian’s is one of the region’s top prep teams, winning New England championships in 2001 and ’02, and reaching the finals of the Martin/Earl tournament last year.

“The hockey culture in Needham has a great tradition,” said St. Seb’s coach Sean McCann, who lives in town and has three children playing youth hockey there. “The landscape has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. But when you look at Needham as a whole, it’s the fabric of the community, no doubt about it.”

The town has produced its share of great players. Ftorek, who is still regarded by many as the best schoolboy player in Massachusetts history, went on to a stellar career in the WHL and NHL and coached the Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils and Bruins. He is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

From that undefeated 1969-70 team, which successfully defended its state title from the year before, Raeder went on to play collegiately at New Hampshire and in the WHL, before turning to coaching. Chuck Lambert and Tommy Parlato went on to Boston College. Steve Dagdigian played at Harvard and later coached St. Seb’s to a pair of New England titles.

Cap Raeder played at UNH and coached in the NHL. (Getty Images)

“That was probably the best team I’ve ever seen in this state,” Guisti said.

The fan support back in those days was second to none, with the school providing fan buses for students, who would practice their chants on the way to road games: 

“We’re from Needham and no one could be prouder;

And if you can’t hear us, we’ll yell a little louder.”

In recent years, Needham natives Bill Arnold (Calgary Flames) and Danny O’Regan (San Jose Sharks) have been drafted by NHL teams and are playing at BC and Boston University, respectively.

Hockey in Needham goes back a century, but it really got going in the 1950s, when Frank Bell Jr. returned to town and started a youth program, first holding sessions at the old St. Sebastian’s campus in Newton. Bell had played on a pair of Needham title teams in the 1940s and gone on to Northeastern, and in addition to working with the kids, he’d help out the high school team.

“That was the thing Frank did. We only had one practice a week, at the skating club in Boston,” said Harry Duval, a standout high school player in the 1950s. “Frank, in the fall, would rent an hour or two of ice. We’d all chip in and he’d run a practice for us.”

On Sundays in the winter, Bell would oversee practices at Rosemary Lake. Woody Dumart, the Bruins forward, would help out, as would guys such as John Chambers, who’d go on to coach Needham High School for 16 seasons, including the Ftorek years, and win three state titles.

At first, the program had just two teams. Today, the Needham Youth Hockey organization boasts 18 teams at the Bantam, Midget, Mite, Pee-Wee and Squirt levels, and two girls’ teams. 

“It just grew from there,” said Duval, who helped out Bell in the early days and took over running the program in the 1960s and ’70s while his wife, Jeanette, served as the organization’s president for 23 years.

NEEDHAM FACTS

Location: Fifteen miles southwest of Boston. Bordered by Wellesley, Newton, Boston, Dover, Westwood and Dedham.
Population: Roughly 28,000
About town: Incorporated in 1711, named after Village of Needham Market in Suffolk, England.
Rinks: Lane Rink at St. Sebastian's School, 1191 Greendale Ave.
Sports history: Needham High School has won seven state hockey titles: 2008, 1970, 1969, 1966, 1954, 1946, 1944 (shared with Medford). St. Sebastian’s has won two New England prep titles: 2002, 2001. Needham vs. Wellesley is recognized as the oldest Thanksgiving high school football rivalry in the United States, with games dating back to 1882.
Local legends: Robbie Ftorek, currently the head coach of the OHL’s Erie Otters, is regarded by many as the best player in Massachusetts high school history and is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. ESPN anchor Karl Ravech and Olympic gold-medal gymnast Aly Raisman also grew up in Needham. “Mad Men” actor John Slattery went to St. Sebastian’s.

“That’s where it all starts,” said Guisti, who’s been the high school varsity head coach since 1995. “That’s why Hingham is pretty good. Reading. All of those public schools have pretty good programs with the youth.”

Duval was a junior defenseman on the 1954 team that won a state title in dramatic fashion. After finishing second to Walpole in the Bay State League, Needham was locked in a 0-0 tie in the third period against Belmont in the state semifinals at Boston Arena.

That’s when goalie Donny Willamson hurt his groin making a save on a breakaway to keep the game scoreless. Defenseman Forbes Keith, who was a good enough skater to go on to play at Boston University, was chosen to replace him, in part because he was the catcher on the school’s baseball team.

“He goes into the locker room, and they take the equipment right off Donny and put it on him,” Duval said.

The scoreless game ran past curfew and was postponed until the next afternoon, but not before Needham’s leading scorer, Mark Wenham, took a deflected puck to the face. He stayed up all night with a doctor icing it, then got stitched up and scored the game-winning goal the next day. Needham would beat Walpole, 3-2, in the championship.

In the modern day, the Rockets have reached at least the play-in game of the Super 8 tournament in each of the past five years. In 2008, after losing the play-in game, they went on to win the Division 1 championship

Just another hockey story from a town that’s got volumes of them.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Email: mzhe@hockeyjournal.com