Three of the four teams with the most hockey championships in Rhode Island Interscholastic League history – Mount St. Charles, Burrillville and Cranston West – were playing for championships …
Three of the four teams with the most hockey championships in Rhode Island Interscholastic League history – Mount St. Charles, Burrillville and Cranston West – were playing for championships again this year. The fourth – Cranston East – spent its first year on the sidelines after the program was discontinued before the season, with remaining players joining West’s team. The start of the new co-op era marked the end of one of Rhode Island’s greatest hockey powerhouses. Longtime head coach Dick Ernst took the opportunity to reflect on the history of the Thunderbolts in this letter.
Cranston High School was a charter member of Interscholastic hockey, which reached its zenith during the 1960s. Burrillville, La Salle and Mount St. Charles had championship years and fine teams, but in years hence, the decade’s most remembered powerhouse will be Cranston East, which produced New England championship teams in 1966 and 1969, state championship teams in 1964, ’66, ’67 and ’69 and league championships in 1960 ’64, ’65 and ’66.
These sparkling successes really received their formative start in 1956, when Cranston hired Howie Crins as head coach. In his first season as Thunderbolt boss, the fiery Crins led his charges into the state semifinals and an eventual third-place finish after knocking off previously powerful Burrillville in consolation play.
This doesn’t seem like too great a feat but considering that this represented Cranston’s highest finish since 1941, it proved to be the shot in the arm that was to catapult ‘Bolts teams to greater heights in the 1960s.
The 1956 squad benefited from players who had received additional and added hockey experience in peewee and youth league play begun in Cranston by youth hockey supporter Dick Vandall. Two of the 1956 squad’s top players were All-Staters: myself, Dick Ernst, and J. Allan Soares, the league’s best defenseman, who played briefly for the Rhode Island Reds and became varsity hockey coach at Brown University.
The aforementioned 1941 season produced Cranston’s last championship squad until the 1960s. George ‘Mack’ Horton, future head coach at Cranston, was a member of that team, which included the late George Pullian, one of Cranston’s greatest athletes, who went on to Dartmouth College. Paul ‘Jigger’ Higgins, the man who Crins succeeded, was the coach of that squad as well as the 1937 state champs whose captain was Len Alsfeld, former manager of the Cranston Veterans Memorial Ice Rink.
Until the 1971 season, Cranston practiced on ponds or rented the R.I. Auditorium or Ice Bowl, a small rink where many peewee hockey stars were developed in the 1960s. The Vets Rink opened in 1971.
Possibly Cranston’s greatest hockey era was the mid-20s and early-30s. Under coach Carl ‘Speed’ Merritt, the ’Bolts were a dynamic powerhouse, capturing the league title in 1927 and the league and state titles in 1929, ’30, ’31 and ’32.
The undefeated 1931 squad was perhaps the most dominant of all, with six starters making First-Team All-State. Red Gould, Howie Chisholm, Red Hough, Howie Sheffield, Rod McGarry and Tony Parrillo made up the all-Cranston All-State team. Cranston was undefeated and un-scored on for the entire season.
Throughout the years, Cranston hockey players distinguished themselves after graduation by going on to college and extending their hockey careers beyond.
Jack Capuano, an East standout in 1982 and 1983, is now head coach of the New York Islanders. Curt, John, Harvey, Jim and Bill Bennett all played professionally. Howie Crins’s entire 1956 squad went on to college and set a pattern for players on future teams to follow.
In 1958 and ’59, Cranston again made the semifinal. In 1960, with a high-scoring line of Ed Stahowiak, Lee Hathaway and Herb Kaufman teaming with brilliant goalie Ray Ruggieri, the ’Bolts won the league title but were upset by Hope High School in semifinal state play.
Four years later, with a sophomore-dominated squad, East once again reached the summit by winning the league and state championship. Joe Cavanagh, said to be the greatest Rhode Island high school hockey player, was a sophomore center. He and his linemate Dan DeMichele both made the All-State team. Cavanagh went on to three straight league scoring championships.
In 1965, East again powered its way to the league title, but was boldly upset by an underdog La Salle team in the state finals. Cavanagh and DeMichele were joined on the All-State team by linemate Rich McLaughlin, whose father, Dick McLaughlin had coached most of the East team members when they were bantam players for CLCF’s Auction City powerhouse, along with Don Mellor.
The 1966 team was, according to many, Cranston’s greatest team and perhaps the best ever to play in Rhode Island. They were undefeated except for a loss to Yale University’s freshman team. They swept through Burrillville for the state title and crushed perennial Maine power St. Dominic for the New England crown at the Boston Garden. The Cavanagh line was joined on the All-State squad by Curt Bennett, a converted forward who was switched to defense by Crins. Ted Bryand, a great defenseman, and Greg Fiske rounded out the first six on the team, which would be coach Crins’s last. He retired from coaching at season’s end.
Joe Cavanagh went on to become a three-time All-American and captain at Harvard. Curt Bennett was an All-American at Brown and played 10 years in the NHL. Their feats and those of all the others left a fabulous hockey heritage to uphold.
Mack Horton, longtime assistant to both Higgins and Crins, took over the program in 1967, and I took an assistant’s job. With only two veterans, Dave Cavanagh and John Bennett, younger brothers of the graduated stars, the ’Bolts pulled a major surprise and held on to the championship in ’67, beating out La Salle in a torrid three-game final.
La Salle gained its revenge in 1968 by knocking out Cranston in the quarterfinals. But in 1969, East was back, defeating defending champs Mount St. Charles in an exciting state final and then edging Waterville, Maine 2-1 in overtime in the New England semifinals and Berlin, N.H., 3-2 in the finals, again in overtime.
The ’69 squad was led by All-Staters Mike Theriault in goal, Harvey Bennett at defense and Otto Tingley at center. Dave Poole was the other defenseman; Lloyd Sheehan and Doug Smith were Tingley’s linemates. Sheehan scored the winning goal against Waterville and Smith put in the winner against Berlin, both in overtime.
In 1970, with veterans Theriault and Poole back, Cranston East made it to the state finals but found Mount St. Charles too strong. The next year, East had a veteran team but a spirited La Salle squad knocked out the favored ’Bolts in a grueling, four-game semifinal series.
Faced with a total rebuilding job, the once powerful ’Bolts lost their 1971-72 season opener to Cranston West, their cross-town rivals. West, a suburban league power and a relatively new team in school competition, developed into a powerhouse in the 1970s.
In the early part of that decade, the East-West rivalry was the biggest in Rhode Island. Huge crowds for every game forced the league in 1975 to play the games at Thayer Arena in Warwick in order to accommodate the fans. That year, East played West in the state Division I quarterfinals. East won the series 2-1, and that remains the only time the rivals met in the Division I postseason. Throughout the 1980s, East won 21 games against West without losing.
The East team had several stars come through its ranks in this era: Jim Bucci, a three-time First-Team All-Stater, along with his brother Dave a year later. Steve Taylor, 1980 All-State, Met A top scorer and 1984 Providence College captain; the Harrington brothers – David, Steve and Gerry – who all went on to play at Yale; Jim Bennett, who went to Brown; Richard and Bob Cavanagh, Pat Kennedy, Pete Howard, Ray Mansolillo, Ken Silva, Mark Hebert, Paul Mellor, Tim Harrington and Garret Bodington.
After serving seven years as an assistant, I took over the head coaching job in 1974 and remained at the helm for the next 29 years. My best team was the 1984 squad, which pulled off one of the great upsets in league history. Bishop Hendricken had finished first in the league ahead of Mount. East finished fourth but defeated Hendricken in an exciting semifinal series. Gordie and Bobby Ernst and Tom Hogan were a dynamic line in front of goalie Joel Kiers. Mike Gambardelli, Steve Baker, Bob Tramonti, Bill Butler, Gary Avguster and Pat Tarmey were also standouts on t his team.
East played Mount in the finals but lost two straight. The ’Bolts were the only public school to play in the finals in a span of 16 years. Gordie Ernst set a playoff record with 19 points.
In 1985, Gordie, Bobby and Andy Ernst formed East’s top line. Andy had two goals and Gordie scored the winner while beating Mount 5-4 in a league game. It was Mount’s only loss in a season in which they were rated No. 1 in the U.S. It was the program’s only loss to a public school in a span of 20 years of league play.
Gordie, Bobby and Andy Ernt took All-State honors.
The 1994 and 1995 teams won back-to-back Met C championships with terrific players Tom Pereira, Terry Healey, Greg Brown and goalie Kevin Roberts. The 2002 ’Bolts were 26-0 Met C champs.
Bob Jackson and former East players Bob Finelli and P.J. Bessette were Ernst’s successors until the end in 2013.