By Mike Zhe
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
One reason Belmont Hill senior Brandon McNally likes playing for Ken Martin is the longtime coach’s demeanor: calm and collected, with a knack for always knowing the right things to say.
“He’s always focused,” McNally said. “Even at Frozen Fenway last year (a 6-5 overtime win over St. Sebastian’s that featured a comeback from a 5-2 deficit). He never gets mad. He always says the right thing at the right time. Because of that, we always feel we have a chance.”
Not much gets by Martin — except, maybe, when it comes to milestones. And sometimes saying no to a friend.
Martin, a Framingham, Mass., native, began coaching at Belmont Hill in 1972. Last month, he became the first coach in Massachusetts history to win 700 games, after the Hillies routed Phillips Andover on the road, 7-1.
Lost in the hype leading up to that big number was one just as big, in meaning if not in value: Martin’s 696th win gave him one more than his longtime friend, former Arlington High School coach Ed Burns, who’d held the all-time state record.
“In all honesty,” Martin said, “I was just looking at it like a milestone number that I would pass and that would be it. It’s definitely taken on a life of its own.”
The dual milestones have thrown a spotlight on Martin and the Belmont Hill program, even during a season that hasn’t been as stellar as some. The Hillies were 17-8-2 in late February, their first Independent School League title since 2007 well out of reach.
The game has changed in some ways since Martin became Belmont Hill’s coach in 1972, but not in others. He also teaches Latin at the all-boys prep school.
“Thirty-nine years ago, you really only needed two lines to play,” Martin said. “Now, you can’t play with two lines in 18-minute periods. … All the kids nowadays are real good skaters. But there’s still only a few guys on each team that are exceptional.”
Martin runs his program like a college team, fitting for a guy who himself was a college standout. He was the first player in Bowdoin College history to amass 100 points, and he was an All-ECAC performer all three years.
“He always says we’re getting ready for the next level,” McNally, who is headed to Dartmouth next year. “Most of the drills we do are college drills. It’s something I’m going to be thankful for next year.”
Martin always has been meticulous about practice plans, about accounting for each available hour. But there was always the potential for flexibility, like when longtime Matignon coach Marty Pierce would cajole him into foregoing practice and scrimmaging his team.
“We’d scrimmage each other three or four times a year back then,” Martin said a little incredulously. “He’d say, ‘I don’t have any ice today.’ I’d say, ‘Marty, we’ve got a game tomorrow.’ But then he’d say, ‘Come on,’ and we’d scrimmage.”
“Those games used to draw a crowd,” pointed out Pierce, who stepped down at Matignon in 2004 after 40 years and now assists his son, Martin, and Joe McCabe with the JV team at BC High. “In the ’80s and ’90s, we had some pretty good teams. It was good for us. You don’t want to play anyone beneath you. He was more than generous when I called him.”
Through coaching, the two developed a close friendship that exists to this day.
“The relationship carried over to where we’d have dinner once or twice a year with our wives,” Pierce said. “We’d take them into the North End.”
It was Pierce, Martin and Burns — and Roger Richard of Billerica — who were in charge of the Massachusetts All-Star teams that played a group of Minnesota stars in two much-hyped series in back-to-back years in the 1980s. The Mass. teams, which featured future NHL stars such as Jeremy Roenick (Marshfield, Mass.) Shawn McEachern (Waltham, Mass.), Tony Amonte (Hingham, Mass.), Steve Leach (Lexington, Mass.) and Tom Barrasso (Stow, Mass.) swept the series 3-0 one year, then took two of three games the following year in Minnesota.
All four of those coaches — Martin, Pierce, Burns and Richard — were inducted into the Massachusetts State Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame between 1994 and 2002.
“(Martin) certainly knows his stuff,” Pierce said, “and certainly could have coached anywhere at the college level.”
Belmont Hill has been a great fit for Martin, who has coached future Olympians and NHL standouts, including Mark and Scott Fusco (Burlington, Mass.), C.J. Young (Waban, Mass.), David Jensen (Needham, Mass.), Christian Ruutu and Ian Moran (Acton, Mass.), all the way up to current Montreal Canadiens defenseman Paul Mara (Belmont, Mass.).
“It’s unbelievable,” McNally said. “I had Scott Fusco as a coach. We played against him in the alumni game. We have the jerseys hung up around the locker room, the guys that have gone on.”
But it isn’t just the NHL guys Martin remembers. It’s players such as Mike Eastman, who went on to play at Tufts and recently made a U.S. national team. And who’s deaf.
“Great kid,” Martin said. “He was hearing impaired at school, but he could hear some, and recently he just lost his hearing. … I wasn’t familiar with how they played hockey at the Deaflympics. He says he does a lot of lip-reading. They have lights that go off for offsides and penalties.
“We’ve had guys that have construction companies and build hospitals,” he added. “Richie Walsh, his company built Agganis Arena for BU. (Screenwriter/TV producer) David E. Kelley was a captain here, then went to Princeton and was a captain there. There are lots of guys who have gone on and done great things after Belmont Hill.”
McNally (Saugus, Mass.) is headed to Dartmouth. Fellow senior Mike McNamara (Chestnut Hill, Mass.) is bound for Holy Cross. Junior forward Jim Vesey (North Reading, Mass.) has committed to Harvard.
“When I first started, there were a lot of kids that went on to Division 1,” Martin said. “That’s one of the things that’s really changed. Most of the (Div. 1) colleges don’t want a kid to come right out. Most of our kids are motivated academically and ready to go to college.”
Even after 39 years — and now 704 wins — there’s plenty of motivation for Martin.
“He’s certainly earned the respect of everyone,” Pierce said, “and he’s earned everything that he’s attained.”
Mike Zhe can be reached at email@example.com