From Humble Beginnings

03/30/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Chaz Scoggins

LOWELL -- In some ways Bill Riley Jr., feels like it was just yesterday he arrived on the campus at Lowell Tech to take over a two-year-old varsity hockey program that had posted a lackluster 11-16-1 record. In other ways his 22 years behind the bench left him feeling much older than the 65 years he is now.

Riley, who coached his last game in 1991, will be retiring from the UMass Lowell athletic department in June. He is the architect of hockey at the school, taking it from a flailing -- perhaps even failing -- program in 1969 to what today is a nationally-recognized one in Hockey East, arguably college hockey's strongest top-to-bottom league.

"It's a great school academically, affordable, and during our 25 years in Hockey East we've had some successes," Riley says with pride.

When Riley arrived in 1969, outgoing coach Richard Morrison told him the program would never be a winner. Included among the Terriers' varsity losses were 17-1 shellackings by Boston State, 13-1 and 10-1 by Salem State, and 11-2 by UMass. In one stretch the Terriers surrendered double figures in goals in six consecutive games.

Riley, whose uncle Jack had coached the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in 1960 and whose father, Bill Sr., had been a star player and coach at Dartmouth, was undeterred.

"I remember coming out of my interview for the job with Rusty Yarnall, the AD, and Gary Bishop, the hockey team's captain, was waiting there," Riley remembers. "This was the 
late '60s, of course, when there was a lot of activism by college students.
"And Bishop was always hanging around the athletic department, making sure the school didn't kill hockey or make it a club sport again. I think he made a lot of people in the administration nervous."

Bishop was also LTI's best player. His 76 goals still rank fifth on the school's all-time list and his 156 points rank 11th, even though the team played only 62 games during his four seasons. He later became a long-time assistant coach under Riley.

"I was actually hired to be the head athletic trainer," Riley says. "Coaching hockey was my secondary job, and I also had to coach soccer for three years. After that I went in to Rusty and said I can't do all this anymore."

By then, however, Riley had already coached LTI to three straight winning seasons, including its first ECAC Division II Tournament appearance in 1972. Now coaching hockey full time, he was beginning to lure some very good players to the school.

"My first two big recruits were Bobby Kearin and Dennis Stead," Riley says. "Those g uys were so good, they could have played today."

By the mid-1970s Lowell Tech and Lowell State had merged to become the University of Lowell. And with their new sports-minded president, John Duff, enthusiastically supporting the program, the newly-named Chiefs were emerging as a Division II powerhouse.

"When I got here I wanted Lowell Tech to be like Michigan Tech," Riley relates. Michigan Tech was one of the premier programs in the country at the time.

"My short-range goals were to beat Salem State, Bowdoin, Merrimack, and Boston State. Once that became reality the next step was to be able to beat Bowdoin and Merrimack in the ECAC playoffs," Riley continues.

"We finally did that in 1977. Bowdoin was the three-time defending ECAC Division II champions, and we went up there with Tommy Jacobs and beat them 4-2. Even Merrimack couldn't beat Bowdoin in those days, but we did.

"The place held about 2,200 fans and we had bus loads of students going up. There were so many counterfeit tickets, not everybody could get in."

MacTavish a catalyst

The catalyst for the hockey program was the arrival of future NHL star Craig MacTavish in 1977. In just two seasons with the Chiefs MacTavish would score 62 goals and 133 points in 55 games, propelling the Chiefs to a 44-12-1 record and the first of their three NCAA Division II championships in 1979.

"We were starting to get competitive, and then we got MacTavish," Riley recalls. "He wasn't even good enough to play Junior A in Canada. He was playing Junior B when I saw him. And two years later he was playing for the Boston Bruins.

"Tommy Jacobs was a helluva player, too," Riley adds. "He could have played with the Bruins if they'd given him a real chance."

Jacobs, the only player in Lowell's hockey history to score 40 goals in a season, combined with MacTavish to give the Chiefs a lethal one-two scoring punch. Jacobs finished his career with 97 goals and 200 points. He is tied for second on the all-time goals list and is third in points.

In 10 short years Riley had taken the hockey program from obscurity to a national title.

"When you're 24 and starting out, young and zealous, it seemed like a long 10 years," Riley chuckles. "I was working 10 or 12 hours a day, 24/7, 365 days a year.

"Then John Duff came here to run the school. He was a big sports fan, and within two years we won the national title. Still, those first 10 years seemed like an eternity."

By then the talent was flowing to ULowell.

"When MacTavish left, Mike Carr came in and we didn't lose a thing offensively," Riley says.

Carr is Lowell's all-time leading scorer with 134 goals and 279 points. With a supporting cast of players like Ken Kaiser, Kevin Charbonneau, Dean Jenkins, Mark Kumpel, and defensemen Tom Mulligan and Paul Lohnes, the Chiefs would dominate Division II hockey for the next few years, forging a national-record 36-game winning streak and winning two more NCAA crowns.

"Lohnes was a guy who slipped through the cracks," Riley says. "The Blizzard of '78 wiped out a lot of Woburn High School's games, so a lot of Division I teams never saw him play."

Lohnes, a three-time All-American and 1982 winner of the Division II Hobey Baker Award, is eighth on the school's all-time scoring list with 167 points and netted 58 goals, 27 of them during his senior season.

Jenkins, a walk-on who was the heart and soul of those teams, is fifth on the all-time scoring list with 191 points and seventh in goals with 73.

"Bishop said: 'We've got to get this kid. We can't let him go to North Adams State,'" Riley remembers. "I told Bishop: 'Why? He wasn't even good enough to play for Billerica High until his senior year.' But Bishop said we had to get him, so we did.

"Dino may not have been the most talented player we ever had here. But he was the best captain."

Revenge for MacDonald

One local player who desperately wanted to play for ULowell was a diminutive defenseman from Billerica named Blaise MacDonald, who regularly attended the university's hockey games.

"What's interesting is that we did recruit his defense partner at Austin Prep, Dave Nelson," Riley recalls. "That summer Nelson was killed in a car crash before he ever played a game for us. We went after Blaise then, but he had already committed to RIT."

MacDonald got his revenge in 1983 when RIT shocked the 28-1-0 and two-time defending national champion Chiefs 4-1 in the NCAA Tournament semifinals and went on to win the title.

MacDonald is the current hockey coach at UMass Lowell.

By the end of that year ULowell had accomplished all it could at the Division II level, and the program was elevated to Division I. Hockey East was being formed, and the Chiefs hungered to be a member of the new league.

A couple of stinging shutout losses administered by the upstart Chiefs, who had routinely beaten Division I teams, against Boston College were not forgotten. The Eagles especially were adamant about not allowing ULowell into the league.

Riley and his legion of friends politicked incessantly to get the Chiefs into Hockey East.

"This was before cell phones," Riley cautions, "and I dropped a lot of quarters into pay phones at the rink making calls. I think I spent more time on the phone than I did on the ice.

"It was stressful, and it took a lot out of me."

Not until Clarkson and St. Lawrence had second thoughts about leaving the ECAC and dropped out of Hockey East were ULowell and Maine allowed in.

"Fortunately, Clarkson and St. Lawrence stayed in the league long enough to vote us in," Riley says gratefully. "Their votes were the difference."

Being a member of Division I and Hockey East meant saying farewell to those "Slapshot" Division II days and some memorable antics on and off the ice.

"I think we had more fun back in those days," Riley rhapsodizes about those teams' reputation as mavericks. "The season is so long -- and it's even longer now -- I think you need to have some fun."

ULowell's early Division I teams were built around graceful center Jon Morris, who would become Hockey East's all-time leading scorer and finish his career at Lowell second on the school's all-time list in both goals (97) and points (234) before pursuing an NHL career.

"Ben Smith, the coach at Northeastern, called Morris 'The Ghost,'" Riley says. "He'd be in front of their defensemen, then vanish and reappear behind them."

The Chiefs won 22 games in their fourth season in Division I and went to the NCAA Tournament the next year. Then Riley began losing his zest for coaching as he expended much of his time and energy knocking heads with ULowell chancellor William Hogan.

Handing over the reins

A weary Riley stepped down after the 1990-91 season and turned the reins over to former NHL star Bruce Crowder. In 22 seasons Riley had compiled a 363-270-22 record with four ECAC Division II titles, three NCAA Division II crowns, and taken the Chiefs to six NCAA Tournaments.

Retiring also gave him an opportunity to watch his son, also named Billy, play hockey at Colby College.

"There is so much pressure, most of it self-imposed. It's tough, tough pressure, and I didn't have any regrets when I left it behind," reminisces Riley. "I didn't miss the grind. I didn't miss the recruiting. But I did miss the kids."

Six years after he coached his last game, a dream he'd envisioned for a quarter of a century was realized when the $21.4-million Paul E. Tsongas Arena was built to house the hockey team, now known as the UMass Lowell River Hawks.

"Every time I walk in that building I get a real sense that Lowell Tech players are lurking around," he says.

Earlier this month Riley was honored in retirement ceremonies at the Tsongas Arena, and a banner was unfurled listing his accomplishments.

Riley, however, refuses to take all the credit for saving the hockey program and elevating it to its current status.

"The university, the city, all the pioneers who were there for us over the years are what made the program the success it is," he says. "And right now the program is stronger than it ever has been.

"But," Riley adds, "I feel blessed to have had 40 great years here."