Photo: Belmont Mites, 2017 (credit: Agganis Arena)
By Paul Graham
In the suburbs of Boston, nestled between Cambridge and Waltham, and in a constant battle to the north with Arlington and to the south with Watertown, lies the hockey enclave of Belmont.
Although it does not receive the same fanfare as places like Warroad or Edina, Belmont is steeped with a tradition of producing hockey players. Since the 70s, hundreds of kids have come out of the Belmont Youth Hockey program and gone on to play in high school. Dozens have gone on to play college hockey. Many of these players have been good enough to play Division 1. We’ve even had a few make it all the way to the NHL. Regardless of what level you ultimately played, the love you have for the game can be traced back to that first team with that first coach.
Belmont’s hockey culture has been around since the first half of the 20th century. Names like Red Marsh and Skip Viglirolo played on the 1959 US National team and represent some of the early champions of the game in our town. Since at least the mid-1970s, one person has coached every Mite Hockey player in the town of Belmont and therefore has been everyone’s first coach in that span.
That person is Dan Kelleher.
A lot of towns, I’m sure, have a person like Coach Kelleher. These are the people who are always around the rink and ballfield, teaching the game, and creating a culture of competitiveness fertilized with fun. In Belmont, we were lucky to have Coach Kelleher. Hundreds of kids can thank, to a very large degree, Coach Kelleher for their love of the game regardless of how many years, or what level of hockey, they ultimately played.
Thanks to Mr. Kelleher, as young kids, we were able to play in contests like the Perini tournament and the Arlmont Cup. Later he started the Belmont Christmas Mite Tournament. These tournaments, for a 5-, 6-, and 7-year-old, may as well have been for the Stanley Cup. They were competitive, and they were fun. When I run into some Arlington kids, they still sting from their 1980 Arlmont Cup defeat. Mr. Kelleher made these memories possible for us. All of us had parents who wanted their kids to experience the lessons and joys of teamwork and competing, but none of our parents could have asked for a better first coach for us.
Aside from coaching Mite hockey for our travel program, Mr. Kelleher also ran “Rec” Hockey which was Belmont’s “in-house” program on Sunday mornings at the town rink. Mr. Kelleher would divide the players up into teams named after the Beanpot schools, and we would just play. It was awesome. Parents would plan which Mass to attend based on which hour of “rec” you had that week. When you would go to Mass, you would see your buddies, already dressed in their equipment, walking down the aisle to receive communion. Thirty minutes later, you’re lined up at a faceoff across from these same kids. That’s just the way it was, and it was great! It was Mr. Kelleher who volunteered his time, and who rounded up his friends to help him so that all of us could have these opportunities to have more ice-time through “rec hockey.” That’s a lot of time and effort that he put in for so many of us. Many towns may have someone playing this role, but nobody else had Mr. Kelleher.
Of course, it was a family affair for the Kellehers. To give that kind of time to the kids of our town, he had the First Lady of Belmont Hockey working with him and doing all the behind-the-scenes stuff. Mrs. Kelleher is the best. She knew who the kids were who would block shots and pay the price to win the battles in the corners and in front of the net. She also knew exactly who would shy away from contact and not pay the price – of course the latter was not acceptable behavior in Belmont. If she told you that you had a “nice game,” you were probably on the good list that day!
Mr. and Mrs. Kelleher produced five sons who would play at least college hockey. That’s incredible but now think of the math involved to shuttle five boys to X number of rinks throughout a weekend let alone a week during those youth hockey years. Then, add in the rinks where Mr. and Mrs. Kelleher would be when none of their boys were playing in the game or practice. There is no real way for the rest of us to express gratitude for time and energy they devoted to the hockey playing (and baseball playing for that matter) youth of Belmont.
Most of us had Dad’s who taught us to give firm handshakes and look people in the eye while shaking hands. This process was next to impossible when shaking the hand of Mr. Kelleher. His hands were massive and powerful. To shake his hand, even into adulthood, one had to be mentally prepared. Focus in and do your best to get a good grip. Even if you succeeded up to this point, the best you could do was try to flex the tips of your fingers, and even then, you were touching all palm. His hands engulfed yours. All you could do was give it your best so you could look your own father in the eye afterward. Nothing worse than giving a fish handshake especially to someone who commanded respect like Mr. Kelleher. You did everything you could to accomplish the impossible when shaking his hand.
Coach Kelleher expected you to give it your best, to compete, and to have fun. Of course, it’s hard to have fun when you lose, but we were lucky enough to grow up in Belmont. We really didn’t know too much about losing other than that was what Watertown and Arlington did when we played them.
He was one of many in Belmont who would teach teams how to play the game, but he was the one who laid the foundation for all of us by being our first coach. So much of what you learn about the game, about “team,” about hustle, and about competing stems from your first team. For over 40 years, Belmont kids can point to Dan Kelleher as that first coach.
Thank you, Mr. Kelleher.
Graham is the long-time coach of Belmont High School Girls’ Soccer who also coached Boys’ Lacrosse.