La Salle Academy boys’ hockey coach Mike Gaffney had a ready-made incentive prior to the Rams’ State Championship finals against arch-rival Hendricken: The last time La Salle won a state hockey championship was in 1977 while Mount St. Charles and Hendricken had dominated from 1978 through 2014.
“That was never, ever brought up by me or my assistants,” said Gaffney, whose Rams (20-5-1 overall) beat Hendricken two games to one in their best-of-three championship series. “I don’t think any coach would have brought that up. [The players] knew the history. They didn’t need any added incentive. I don’t think that would spur somebody on that La Salle hadn’t won in 37 years.
“They were a good bunch of guys who were talented. They had a great work ethic. They were unselfish. You have to work hard, be unselfish and playing a helmeted sport you need courage especially when it was time to block a shot.
“That,” continued Gaffney, “wasn’t a topic of conversation.”
Despite that long championship drought plus the fact La Salle had defeated Hendricken three times in four games during the regular season the Rams weren’t over-confident prior to the finals.
“We were confident but we knew we were going to be in for a battle,” said Gaffney, who’s been coaching high school hockey for nearly 40 years and who’s been La Salle’s head coach since the 2006-07 season. “The loss we had to Hendricken in mid-January was 5-0. It really was the only game we weren’t in. They came out and before we blinked our eyes it was 3-0.
“We played them in the last game of the season and won 3-0. Going into the finals our team was confident but they also had experienced what it was like to get beat 5-0.”
La Salle had come close to ending the state championship drought in 2010 and 2013 only to lose in the finals.
“The expectations these players had was they were going to win,” said Gaffney. “All teams say that at the start of a season. In this case these players were being realistic. We had better-than-good players in goal, defense and forward.
“Last year it was a team that only had one senior (goalie Tyler Walsh) and he made a big contribution. Last year we thought we could make a good run in the playoffs. But Tyler got injured in the last period of the last regular-season game we were winning against Mount St. Charles.”
As a result, La Salle’s aspirations evaporated into thin air.
“This year when we started, they realistically set some high goals,” said Gaffney, whose team included senior defenseman Ryan Kelly – the Rhode Island Hobey Baker High School Character Award recipient. “When Tyler was in the net we didn’t lose any regular-season (league) games. We had other very good players. But Tyler deflected shots so there weren’t good rebounds.
“He gave us a chance to win all the time. He’s a very good athlete and a real competitor.”
All Walsh did during the regular season was post a 16-3-0 record replete with seven shutouts, a 0.76 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage.
But Walsh also typified something else about this team: hockey might not be the best sport played by Walsh plus forwards Joe Manown (19-3-22 totals), Ryan Tracy (12-9-21 totals) and Joe Manown’s younger brother, Matt (5-8-13 totals).
Joe Manown last season earned All-American High Schools honors in lacrosse and already has signed a letter of intent to play that sport next year at Duke.
Matt Manown last season was a Second Team All-State lacrosse midfielder who already is on the proverbial radar screens of several college lacrosse coaches.
Walsh last season not only was a Second Team All-State hockey goalie but also a First Team All-State first baseman on a team that lost to Hendricken in the Division I State Baseball Finals.
Tracy played second base and shortstop last spring for the baseball team and compiled an impressive .944 fielding percentage.
“I never hear them discuss that,” said Gaffney of the contention that this quartet’s best sport might not be hockey. “We have a bunch of lacrosse players on the hockey team. I think being a good player in another sport just helps you in hockey and vice-versa.
“All the things it takes to be a good lacrosse player would cross over into being a good hockey player – like eye-hand coordination – and vice-versa. I think in all of those cases when it’s hockey season they love hockey. When they pick up a ball they love lacrosse or baseball. They’re winners in so many ways because of the effort they put into sports.”
Gaffney also was quick to note that old bromide: “Winning begets winning.”
“They know what it’s like to win and what it’s like to come close,” he said. “The lessons you learn playing on a team get carried over to the next in terms of what to do and what not to do.”
What Walsh, the Manowns and Tracy did was give La Salle a hockey season to remember.
Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball, football and hockey, plus minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y. he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.