Sunday December 2, 2012

PITTSFIELD

If there is such a thing as hockey heaven, then Peter Drennan owns a permanent address in that coveted neighborhood.

The three men who mentored Drennan were more than hockey coaches. They would turn out to be life coaches. Drennan, the city native and 1973 St. Joe graduate who now lives in the hockey hotbed of Longmeadow, works as a physician in internal medicine. But the shaved ice of his Pittsfield roots and the memories of a youth, high school and prep school career in the rinks moved Drennan to share his story.

"Sixteen: An American Hockey Story" takes the reader from the frozen ponds and lakes around Berkshire County to the indoor rink at the Boys & Girls Club of Pittsfield during his youth hockey days under the watchful eye of New Brunswick, Canada, native and local hockey icon Carl Moffatt. The story segues into high school where the first St. Joseph team was formed during his freshman year in the fall of 1969.

Jack Charette was a first-year sociology teacher at St. Joe and had played hockey in Springfield at American International College. He had designs on a team at St. Joe, and despite only a dozen players being at the first meeting, Charette rallied enough bodies not only to form a team but to secure a state title with a win over the eastern Massachusetts powerhouse Wayland in the late winter of 1973.

Drennan admits he could have ended the story there, but his experience at The Hill preparatory school in Pottstown, Pa., was so inspirational under legendary coach Tom Eccleston that another chapter or two had to be added.


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The book, said Drennan, is more about the player trying to thank his three coaches and the city he grew up in for the chance to live, love and learn the sport he cared so much about.

"I started the book in March of 2009," Drennan said. "I would probably had done so even if we didn't win the state championship in 1973. I had the time in my life to start to collect my thoughts and I knew there was a story there.

"You just reach a point where you start to wonder about things. You start thinking about the people you met along the way. Pittsfield was such a great place in which to grow up. I wanted this book to be something the city could hold on to. I wanted it to be a good story for Pittsfield."

Drennan's late father, local attorney F. Richard Drennan, was a great reader of military history and passed the passion of reading on to his son.

"I tried to work some history into the book, but not a whole lot," Drennan said. "I took the project just one chapter at a time."

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Drennan grew up on Holmes Road, the middle of three boys that included Richard and younger brother and state championship teammate Paul. The elder Drennan had won a state Legion baseball championship in Medford in 1939, so the athletic gene was passed along. But it was the shiny ice and not the dirt of a diamond that drew Peter's attention. With ill-fitting equipment, he learned to skate on local ponds, the flooded rink at the Common and his sandlot park at Deming Field.

When he was about 5, he began his youth hockey career at the Pittsfield Boys Club. Moffatt, he said, had incredible skills. But the director of the club program taught hockey in ways a child could understand, and it wasn't long before Drennan began to blossom and become a regular member of the all-star travel teams.

"Writing this book was an experience all to itself," Drennan said. "And through the process I was able to realize all the things that Carl did to help me as a player."

Said Moffatt, 79, who is retired and now living in Daytona Beach, Fla., "Peter was one of those kids who took advantage of all the ice time we were given. The Boys Club was very generous about that. I always thought there were a lot of life lessons you could get from hockey and Peter is an example of that."

"Peter came through at our rink during the youth hockey infancy stages," said Peter Bell, the Boys & Girls Club executive director. "The demographics have changed and we no longer have a House League for kids. A league where players and their families don't have to commit to a travel team. We'd like to see a shift back to that. Peter was able to take advantage of the opportunity."

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Drennan recalled that first hockey meeting held after school in a St. Joe classroom. His own classes were upstairs and Charette, the sociology teacher wanting to form a hockey team, taught downstairs. Drennan barely knew or had seen the man. A nifty dozen were on hand to meet the new coach. It was just barely enough to field a team that ended up playing an abberviated schedule that first year.

That a state championship was just a few years away seemed unfathomable.

"Jack was exciting to be around," Drennan said. "He believed we could get there. He lived in Cummington and used to get up at 3 a.m., in order to make our early before-school practices at the Boys Club.

Charette, who died in 1982, had taken the Crusaders to incredible heights with that 4-3 state championship win over Wayland. He soon moved on to coach in Springfield at Cathedral, but his legacy had been assured by his efforts at St. Joe and the title team captained by Drennan, who Charette had moved to defense following the player's left-wing days under Moffatt.

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Tom Eccleston arrived at The Hill to coach hockey and teach history at the age of 62. Already a legendary hockey and football coach from the Burrville section of northeastern Rhode Island, Eccleston stayed for 12 years and amassed so much success that the school ultimately named the rink after him. Eccleston died in 2000.

Drennan's one year with the disciplined coach left him with a lifetime of memories.

"When I arrived at The Hill, I had no guarantees about hockey from either the school or coach Eccleston," Drennan said. "But he had been a huge figure in New England hockey and coached at Providence.

"The thing is you had to skate his system, and if you did it correctly you won. That's what I had to learn."

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The state title was the highlight. And if Drennan savors that memory, then who can blame him? He had taken his lumps during the onset of the St. Joe program and he was on a team at The Hill that brought back just two letter winners. "Sixteen," he said, is not about triumph but about triumph over adversity.

"I loved hockey then and still do," Drennan said. "But you have to remember, I participated in a lot of losing. That process can even be fun and I tried to point that out in the book. Sometimes you have to embrace the challenges and sometimes we actually do. Part of the message of this book is learning how to persevere through the difficult times."

Brian Sullivan can be reached at mariavicsullivan@yahoo.com.

If you go ...

What: The Friends of the Berkshire Athenaeum will sponsor a talk followed by a meet-and-greet for Pittsfield native Dr. Peter J. Drennan of Longmeadow, who will speak about his book "Sixteen: An American Hockey Story." The event is free and open to the public. Drennan will have copies of his book available.

When: Saturday, Dec. 8, 3 p.m.

Where: The downstairs auditorium at the Berkshire Athenaeum. Those attending may enter the library at either the Bartlett or Wendell avenues entrances.

Book orders: "Sixteen: An American Hockey Story" can be ordered online at bookorders@rosedogbooks.com or by calling 1-(800)-834-1803.