This hit was harder than the tough one he absorbed early in the opening period of the 1975 state Division 2 championship game against Billerica High on the ice at the former Boston Garden.
"The news was just so sudden," said Rene Champoux, "I'm still trying to get my arms around it. This wasn't anything I saw coming."
The Pittsfield resident wasn't alone. No one did.
The week started sadly with the news of the passing of Mark Viale, who died both suddenly and unexpectedly last week at the age of 55. Viale, a Pittsfield native and resident of Belmont, was the son of Craig and Marilyn Viale of Spadina Parkway.
Viale, a 1976 Pittsfield High graduate, gave the city an electrifying three years of hockey in March of 1974-76, when he helped lead those PHS teams to berths in three consecutive state Division 2 championship games. The middle title battle against Billierica was at the Garden, while the 1974 game against Acton-Boxboro and the 1976 contest, also against Billerica, took place at the Springfield Coliseum. Pittsfield was on the short end of lopsided scores in all three games.
For the sake of historical perspective and for others who simply enjoy the trivia that is the city's sports history, there have been only two scholastic teams from Pittsfield to have played in the fabled Garden, and they were both Pittsfield High squads.
One was Viale's hockey team, and the other was the PHS basketball team led by Mark Belanger. The PHS hardwood team won the Western Mass. title, and while not state champions, were invited to participate in the New England tournament hosted by the Garden in the spring of 1962. Belanger netted 32 points in a loss to Hillhouse of New Haven, Conn.
Billerica was the gold standard in high school hockey during the mid-1970s. The Indians won three straight state titles in their division, including the 9-6 triumph over PHS on that St. Patrick's Day night in Boston. To suggest that Pittsfield versus Billerica was a David versus Goliath matchup might be a slight push, but to suggest the game was a toss-up would also not be accurate.
Had PHS won, then Al Michaels' famous Olympic call of 1980 -- "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" -- would certainly have applied. So, it was no early version of the U.S. hockey team stunning Russia, but it was still an effort worth remembering.
The Billerica teams of that era sent many players to Division 1 college programs in and around the Boston area, said Champoux, who with his brother, Jean-Paul, anchored the defensive blue line. The Generals, meanwhile, had to get the most out of a little. With no disrespect intended for the second-line players, it was the top line of center P.J. Murphy and wingmen Rob Turner and the feisty Viale, the Champoux brothers and goalie Dave Gionet who carried PHS throughout much of the season.
Pittsfield lost just six times during that three-year run. Three times they went down in the state finals, twice lost to St. Joe at the Boys Club rink and once to Springfield Classical. On two occasions, the teams that defeated PHS in the final game were capping spotless seasons.
The only non-PHS player to be selected to the Hennessy League postseason first team in 1975 was Paul Drennan of St. Joseph's. The Generals made it through the ‘75 regular season with no difficulty and won the Western Mass. title before heading into the state semifinals against a highly touted Worcester South team.
If there was a reason to be concerned, then it never manifested itself. Pittsfield waltzed to a 10-2 victory, and it was onward to the Garden. Viale, ever the captain, switched from a right wing position to the left wing slot during the year to help accommodate Turner, who took the place of the graduated Ray Broderick that season. Viale posted 110 points, and was still overshadowed at times by the prolific Murphy, the son of PHS coach and hockey icon Don Murphy, who steered the team during those three mighty years.
P.J. Murphy totaled around 150 points -- it remains a state record -- during the campaign, while the line itself amassed an unbelievable 351 points. Viale's contributions included 53 goals and 57 assists.
"Mark was a very unassuming and quiet kid," Champoux recalled. "But on the ice he was aggressive and determined. He didn't have what you would call a classic hockey style, but if the puck was loose in the crease, then he'd find a way to put it into the net."
Added P.J. Murphy, "It didn't matter the size of the defender. Mark would always go into the corner and come out with the puck."
That PHS line was on the ice almost constantly during that championship game, and used a Herculean effort in the second period to turn a 6-3 first-period deficit into a 6-5 contest entering the final period. That comeback was sparked by goalie Gionet, who by game's end had been asked to stop 54 shots at goal. He saved 45. Gionet, who was backed in goal by John Mizia and Tom Carr, was often spectacular with his save efforts.
Said Champoux, who often rushed the puck up ice while trusting his brother and Gionet to patrol and control the back half of the ice, "Dave was so tall, I think a 6-footer," Champoux said about his netminder. "We called him ‘Gawk,' but he kept us in those games."
Murphy was emotional about the loss of his former teammate, "We played against each other at the prep school level, and then he went to Bowdoin and I went to Middlebury, and we played each other again. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met."
Gionet, the son of local educator and longtime soccer coach Ralph Gionet, died five years ago after a two-year battle with colon cancer. The Viale wake held on Monday in Belmont was well-attended, said Champoux, by both Pittsfield residents and members of the Belmont community. Murphy, who lives in the eastern part of the state, also attended.
Said Murphy, "Those PHS teams were made up of blue-collar players. And no one was tougher than Mark. His father, Craig, also had a lot to do with our success. He coached many of us through our youth hockey travel team days. It seemed like we played all weekend."
There will be a memorial service at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Charles Church for Viale, who by all accounts played life as well as he did the game of hockey.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.