No More Excuses: The Pride in Billerica Hockey

In the course of putting together a story, sometimes inspiration will strike when you least suspect it and that is exactly what happened here. This article was designed to be a feature on the Billerica Memorial HS hockey team captured through the lens of the brand new $176 million school complex built on the site of the outdated high school that previously sat on the same grounds. This new complex comes complete with all the modern amenities: a gymnasium with an elevated track and brand new basketball courts and new bleachers. A new indoor turf track and weight training facility with an additional space for fitness training. Not to mention brand new classrooms with modern technology and a new auditorium as well. Those new facilities were supposed to tell the story, but another one developed upon our visit to the school.

We took a tour of the new facilities just before Thanksgiving and many of the pictures we took are shown below. But after that we sat down with three of the team’s senior captains and Coach Jim Egan in his office, the real story started to emerge. It’s a story about a team that turned itself around, centered around its belief in the coaching staff and the players’ belief in each other. It’s also a story that really punctuates what it means to be an MIAA hockey player as a senior, to build a tightly knit bond with your teammates and what it means to play for a high school team (and a town community) in Massachusetts. There is no need for editorializing: these words speak far better on their own, transcribed exactly as spoken.

This is the story of the Pride in Billerica Hockey…

Senior D Garrett Murphy (captain), Billerica

MassNZ: Billerica had a great run to the D1 North Semifinals last year, what were some of the things you remember about that run and about that team that made it possible?

Senior D Garrett Murphy (captain): “Just the fact that in our freshman year (three years ago) we won one single game and then in a span of two years we managed to turn it all the way around and make it to the D1 North Semifinals. It is just crazy: the energy in the locker room both before and after the game was just a whole other level.” 

Senior F Garrett Climo (assistant captain): “We had a great team bond going on with all of the players. Everyone was included from the freshmen to the seniors. We were all going out together having pasta parties: bonding before the games and then everyone brings the energy to the locker room everyone gets all hyped up and the fans are a huge part too. We had a great fan section last year and they really boosted us – there was a lot of energy with everyone working off each other – it was one big grind.”

Murphy: “It was the perfect mix, honestly.”

Coach Jim Egan: “These guys hit the nail on the head. It came down to that leadership group. When you have eight or nine seniors and they’re not all captains: sometimes that group doesn’t form and come together to act as a full leadership group. But on last year’s team I think every kid understood their role within the program and that’s the biggest piece: figuring out what that role is and filling it out. That team bond and camaraderie wasn’t just on the ice, it was off the ice. Never did an underclassman need a ride to the pasta party, never did an underclassman feel left out. Everybody was part of the group and it became a fully functioning team. What drove that is these guys as freshmen – they were the ones that really sustained the 1-17-3 season and turned it around to an 8-9-3 season which came down to literally one goal, scored at the buzzer against Chelmsford. At that point: the light went on for these kids that they could win. They could really do it. They were working their tails off and it dawned on them that they could put it together. From that point forward? Everything has been falling into place.”

NZ: It probably didn’t hurt that most of last year’s playoff games were being played pretty close by (in Chelmsford and Lowell) so the travel wasn’t much of an issue for the fan section. What was the community and administrative support like for you?

Murphy: “We had pretty good fan sections at just about every game. Even our one game in Barnstable which is 2 hours away? We had a fan section there – not huge but there were a good amount of people who made the trip.”

Coach Egan: “It’s huge community support, unrivaled community support. We have great administrative support too, as you can see from the new building.”

NZ: In terms of progression, what have you seen change in the team to go from winning 1 game to being a D1 North playoff team last year?

Murphy: “I’d say probably the biggest difference is that we were sick and tired of losing. We were done with that. We lost 17 games in that 1-win season and we were just…fed up. We didn’t want to deal with that anymore so we said in the room we’re going to turn this around, work our tails off and just make it a whole new culture here.”

Climo: “Another huge part came at the end two years ago when we missed the playoffs by one point. We had to win five of our last six games to make it to the playoffs and even though we fell one short we had a lot of returners so everyone knew that feeling. You want to keep going – you’re going to push as hard as you can to get into the playoffs. That was a huge turnaround season: that carried over into this season – it brought a lot of fire the next year and everybody was ready to go from the start. We had a hot start to the season and we were able to carry it through.”

Senior F Garrett Climo (assistant captain), Billerica

Coach Egan: “The seniors last year really set the example for these captains. It’s almost as if they’ve put the culture back together. It’s the culture that I grew up with and was exposed to at a young age as a waterboy and stickboy as a 7 and 8-year-old. We hang things on the wall to make sure that players don’t forget. Two of the best athletes to come through BMHS are on a poster on our wall: Tom Glavine and Walter Cataldo, carrying the water as seniors. Here, freshmen don’t carry water and freshmen don’t carry pucks – the leaders do. They carry the weight and they are the guys that set the examples for the next guys to follow. Everyone wants to be a part of that culture and it makes it easier for that to be transferable for the younger guys leading to the next season and the next season after that. When the young guys aren’t left behind to get to a pasta party – they remember that and they are going to take care of their younger ones when it’s their time and that’s what we’re starting to see.”

NZ: Playing off that team dynamic, what are some of the characteristics of Billerica hockey? What is the team’s identity?

Murphy: “Overall, I’d say we’re just a really hard-working group. There are going to be a few people in the mix that have the skill but for the most part we’re just going out there and busting ass.”

Climo: “We take pride in being one of the more physical teams out there. We play every team hard no matter if its the top team or the worst team in the league, we’re going to give them a run for their money. We’re going to hit hard, we’re going to come out fast and physical: playing every game with the same intensity.”

NZ: Now if you were to pick one or two rivalry games that you have circled on the calendar every year, which ones would those be?

In-unison: “Chelmsford”

Murphy: “They are obviously number one on the list. We played them last year three times and we were the higher seed in the first round of the playoffs last year but the game was played at their home rink. We went into their barn and beat them – we actually beat them twice last year.”

Climo: “Another one is definitely Andover. They always play us hard and we haven’t beaten them in a while. That’s a huge goal for our team this year – we want to come back as seniors and find a way to beat them.”

Coach Egan: “From a coach’s perspective, it’s all about the league, across the board. It’s no longer just the Merrimack Valley: it’s the Valley and the Dual County League and every single night each team is out there competing for those two points. There are no nights off in this league. Every team in the league is a rival, from my perspective. Chelmsford is obviously #1 with the kids but #1 for me would be Andover. That’s been a personal struggle for me as a coach since I’ve been here, to get over that hump. And then you have teams like Central Catholic and when you have a Catholic school rivalry that’s in the league? You want to knock them off. From my perspective overall though? I’ve got a target on the back of every team in the Merrimack Valley Dual County. These games prepare you for the tournament if you are capable of achieving your goal of making it there. The competition level is ultra-high for every single game.”

NZ: Have you established some goals for the year and if so, what is on your list?

Climo: “We want to have a winning record against every team, especially in the MVC. That includes teams like Central Catholic and Andover, there are a lot of good teams in our conference, there are no easy games. We want to come out on top and that will give us a huge push towards the postseason and give ourselves a good seed.”

Murphy: “We want to give ourselves a chance to win the league, first off. Then to qualify for the state tournament again – we are going to give it our best.”

Coach Egan: “I don’t think our philosophy has changed much since I started here but as far as setting goals and being more realistic? I think those have changed a bit. I think that the standard has been set higher by our players so the expectations are a little higher. But my duty and responsibility as a coach is to make sure that these seniors form the same leadership role that the guys had last year. If they do, which I know they will because they’ve already started to do that throughout the summer leading up to the season, I think the younger guys will follow suit and the team will continue to raise the bar.”

NZ: Coach, just to get a feel for how things are set up for this season, can you run through the state of you forward, defense and goalie groups for 2019-20?

Coach Egan: “We graduated nine seniors last year, so we lost a tremendous amount from that leadership group. But we have a lot of components that are coming back so we are in very good shape moving forward. I’m very excited about this year: the bar has been raised, the expectations have been raised for this year. It all starts with Connor Feeney in net: he was there to backbone us last year as a junior and I look forward to seeing what he can do this year. We have three of our top returning defensemen coming back. Upfront, we are more skilled than we have been in the past. We played four or five freshmen and sophomores last year: those kids are bigger, stronger, faster now. They grow up real quick, especially when you use these new facilities the way that they should be used. The outlook for this season is bright but therefore the expectation is higher. There are no ‘gimme’ games this year: Arlington Catholic is on the schedule, Lowell Catholic is on the schedule, we have St. John’s Prep at the end of the season, we will play in the O’Brien Tournament in Woburn. We look at each of these games as preparation for our ultimate goal: landing in the tournament and making a run.”

NZ: Let’s switch things up to talk about these incredible new facilities here in Billerica and what it’s like to have these things at your disposal and how far the hockey program has come since that 1-win season.

Murphy: “It’s crazy – the transformation from the 1-win season to last year and now we have these new facilities? It’s insane. What we have in the new building is like what we had in the old building but it’s nowhere near the same level. In the old building the weight room was a mess at times and cramped. But this year if you take a look at it – the equipment is all brand new and honestly we could not ask for anything better.

Climo: “It started off in July, too. Back in the first week of July we were all here Monday through Friday working from 6:30-8:30am and over the years we saw an increase in the number of players in those morning workouts. Back during the 1-win season, there weren’t too many guys there. The next year we won eight games and there were more players at the workouts. After this season? We saw even more players coming to the workouts, just grinding. A lot of the incoming freshmen, returners, everyone was there giving it their all – trying to get prepared for the season.”

Murphy: “People want to be a part of this: they know that something special is going on here and they want to be a part of it really bad and they’re willing to work for it.”

Coach Egan: “I think it’s a culmination of a few things. We are starting to see less kids go to the Catholic schools – they are seeming to opt out of that option. Therefore we are drawing more kids: our numbers are higher this year for tryouts than they’ve been in my six years coaching here. But the culture that’s being built here plays a big role too. If you take those two things right there and now add the fact that you have a brand new high school that’s no longer on the horizon and now in our hands? Plus we have our own rink on campus? It’s a perfect dynamic: a set up to establish that culture and hopefully it continues to build and pay dividends for us.”

NZ: You can sense a pride in this program’s history and I’m guessing you all want to carve out your own piece of that?

Murphy: “Absolutely. Like I said to Coach Egan when we were looking a few minutes ago at the State Championship banner ‘I think it’s time for a new one.’ ” [Editor’s note: the current banner at Hallenborg Arena highlights D2 State Champs in 1975, 1976 and 1977]

Coach Egan: “My biggest task as a coach is trying to instill the rich tradition and history that this program has. We were talking about the banner in our Arena earlier – I was born in 1977 and we haven’t seen that type of banner raised since. But having grown up in that era, and seeing all those great players and teaching the players about who came through the program before them. Players like Tommy Glavine, a guy who decides to go play Major League Baseball yet gets drafted before Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille in the NHL Draft. So that’s why we hang the plaques on the wall. We try to add one or two each year of a different team and let these guys realize that it’s not about us: it’s about something bigger. It’s a community that’s behind you and you’re the reason that we are filling the stands now. The guys are putting the work in and the community recognizes that and they are coming out to support them.”

NZ: Are there particular elements to having the new weight room and these facilities that have helped you day-to-day both as student-athletes?

Climo: “Over the summer you’re working out with the same group of kids and you start to form a bond. You get even closer than you thought you could because you’re waking up for 6:30am and seeing these same kids every morning – every week of the whole summer. You see them around the halls and you’re all helping each other. We help each other in school too – if anyone’s struggling we make sure they get help. We want everyone to do the best they can both on the ice and in the classroom.

Senior G Connor Feeney (captain): “What I see in classes or in the weight room is how much it’s new and better than the old building. The rooms are totally different: nobody wants to leave. It’s so much of a better area to be in than the old school.”

Senior G Connor Feeney (captain), Billerica

NZ: Onto this coming season, are there any lessons from last year that you will apply to this season? Or is more about business as usual?

Murphy: “I think it is mostly business as usual: keeping our eyes focused in the right direction because what happened last year is in the past and it doesn’t affect this year at all. It’s a brand new slate and we have to come out the exact same way. 

Feeney: “We have almost a new team, lost a few seniors, it will be a bounceback year but it will be pretty fun and I think we can do it.”

Climo: “Got a lot of kids in for the grind too. They saw everything we put in last year, especially towards the end of the season. We have kids that are going to work hard from the beginning of the season. Every game counts, from that first game on, it goes into your final record. Every game you have to go out there and try to win.”

Murphy: “Last year we gave them a piece of what this all means especially to us because after this year? A lot of us will never play competitive hockey ever again. So they have a piece of what it means to us to be successful in our final year.”

Climo: “There is a lot of heart in this, you know? Last year we had 11 seniors, and in the locker room at the end of the last game? We were all crying. After the season everyone was joking around that guys don’t cry and you’re supposed to be tough but there was a lot of emotion there. Strong bonds were built playing for the program and even though those kids can’t come back and they can’t play with us anymore? They are still coming back to see us, it’s huge. We had former players coming to the weight room. Who’s going to want to wake up at 6:30am after they graduate high school to come to the weight room? Those were the seniors last year. We had a lot of great role models and we are hoping to fill their shoes.”

A special thanks goes out to Coach Jim Egan, Garrett Murphy, Garrett Climo, Connor Feeney and the Billerica Memorial HS staff for allowing us the access and images for this story!