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Commentary: A seat next to Coach

He insisted that I take a seat next to him. I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. It was a strange setting, sitting front and center facing a crowded room -- never mind the fact that we’d effectively be eating on stage. The idea horrified me.

Then he clenched my arm and with a whisper’s tone, he reassured me, “Sit right here.”

His face was frail, a toll of having not been able to eat solid food for months. Yet his eyes remained sharp, blue as the sky and big as saucers. He delivered his words with the conviction you’d expect from a coach, rallying his team during an intermission session. He guided me to my chair and sat right next to me.

I didn’t feel like I belonged, nonetheless, directly next to the man of the hour. After finishing off a second straight Super 8 championship, Malden Catholic hockey had dedicated the season to its ailing coach. The banquet night, too, in effect, was a tribute to him. He was the sole reason every face in the room was there. Everybody knew what that night meant to him.

But there he was, sitting next to me, unable to eat food himself. He sipped from a glass of ice water in between chats with countless visitors to the head table. Each time someone approached, he insisted on getting up to greet them, shuffling around the banquet table to give out a hug.

At the end of the night, after all the awards were given out and the dessert plates were left with nothing but frosting bits, he stood to talk.

When he spoke, grown men were brought to sobbing out loud. None of the faces turned up front flinched, save for the dabbing of a tissue to the corner of the eye.

On that night, everyone was there for Chris Serino. And, despite his poor health, he was there to support them.

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I hadn’t met Chris until about two years prior to that night. I’d been invited to present ESPN Boston's Mr. Hockey Award to the Lancers’ BU-bound senior captain Brendan Collier at the team banquet, Malden Catholic celebrating its second straight state championship season.

It wasn’t some dog-and-pony show. That night had the feeling of a family gathering, but with the tenor of a last goodbye. Serino was fighting tooth and nail with throat cancer, which came to bug him again in the fall. It kept him away from being behind MC’s bench, even though you knew he’d give anything in his power to be there -- for his kids.

Still he couldn’t keep away. You’d see him sneak in and out of the Valley Forum in Malden before and after MC games. During the annual holiday tournament at his hometown Kasabuski Rink, I ran into Serino. Against doctor’s orders, he was in the rink (which by my humble estimate is among the most frigid in Massachusetts) to watch not only his MC team play, but also his beloved Saugus Sachems. His retired jersey No. 5 banner hung in the opposite corner. We talked about his son’s baseball career.

Despite undergoing treatments, Serino was in attendance for most of the Lancers’ Super 8 games in March, including the state championship game at the TD Garden.

After that game, which the Lancers won on a late goal by Mike Iovanna (coincidentally, he wore No. 5), Serino appeared in the losing side’s room.

“I couldn’t believe when I saw him walk in,” BC High coach John Flaherty said Monday night after hearing news of Serino’s death. “The locker room got dead quiet when he walked in."

Serino, again with a voice that struggled above the hum of the air conditioning, congratulated Flaherty’s Eagles for playing such a competitive game. It’s a moment that’s stuck with Flaherty.

“He was tough, he was competitive,” Flaherty said. “Some people thought he was all about wins and losses, but what he did with my team that night, nobody in there will ever forget.”

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I didn’t know Serino earlier in his career, but what I encountered during the last couple of years covering his teams was nothing short of genuine.

I heard all the time about his morning breakfast meet-ups with former captain Mike Vecchione, who’s also Saugus born and bred. Even as his health betrayed him last year, he’d constantly keep in touch with captain Brendan Collier and other members of the team. He spoke to Lancers coaches Phil Antonelli, John McLean and Pat Driscoll daily about the program and the athletics scene at MC in his absence. In reality, he never left because -- for the most part -- they couldn’t keep Serino away.

When news of Serino’s death surfaced Monday night, countless messages came flooding. The players and students he touched left messages of memoriam and support for his family on Twitter in droves.

I immediately thought back to the last time I saw him, at the banquet hall. That was his night.

There was always an open seat at his table.